Secrecy and Mystery - What's the Difference?
Throughout history hundreds of ‘secret societies', or groups in which secrecy is a feature, have existed and many still exist today. A fundamental feature of secret societies and magical groups is initiation; a process that enables the neophyte to 'die' to one's old way of life. When I was a teenager there was a gentleman in my neighbourhood who had the reputation of being something of a villain. At the age of 43, much to the amazement of his friends and acquaintances, he publicly confessed his sins to God and became a born-again Christian. From then on, he adopted the bizarre habit of celebrating his birthday - not on the date he left his mother's womb, but on the date that he was 'born' spiritually.
Most individuals would regard that as eccentric if not a little mad. But the important point here is that this gentleman's experience of religious conversion had such a profound effect on him that he succeeded in permanently turning his back on his old way of life to adopt a new and, as far as he was concerned, a much more spiritually rewarding way of life. The same psychological processes are at work whether one becomes a born-again Christian or one enters a secret society or magical group with secrets. The initiation ceremony when approached with sincerity is intended to delineate the 'old' life from the 'new' and enable the neophyte more easily to merge with the group mind and conform to the group ethos.
Initiatory groups tend also by their very nature to generate a certain mystique and this too has a tremendous psychological appeal. This isn't to say that an air of mystique is necessarily pretentious or undesirable. Indeed, mystique can be a valid magical tool, which is why theatre often plays an important role in ritual. Mystique can also be generated through implying possession of ‘secret knowledge' and this may be a little more questionable; the sort of assumed air of superiority a certain founder of a modern witchcraft tradition referred to as his 'grey magic'. Of course, the lure of gaining access to information denied to others is powerful and there is a risk that some individuals may develop a false sense of elitism by assuming they are somehow superior to those outside the group. But in reality, the sort of knowledge guarded by magical groups would be irrelevant to outsiders because it has no useful or practical application outside of the group.
On the other hand, if a group was keeping it secret that it had discovered an unknown law of aerodynamics whereby members could propel themselves through the air astride a broomstick, then this sort of knowledge would certainly be useful to the rest of the world - the military in particular - and one can be sure that such a secret would quickly be divulged. An example of how difficult, if not impossible, it is to keep under wraps universally useful knowledge is Pythagoras's discovery of so-called irrational numbers, the existence of which was only revealed to initiates under oath. The penalty for breaking the oath was nothing less than death. But despite the fearful threat the secret was soon let out of the bag, which indicates that nothing of any useful or profound value remains secret for very long.
Nonetheless, secrecy certainly has its place within magical practise and can serve to bind a disparate number of individuals together, thus reinforcing the group identity. There are also good reasons why that which is deemed sacred should not be profaned by the ignorance of outsiders; even Christianity supports that view, as we read in Luke's Gospel: 'I speak in parables, so that in looking they see nothing and in hearing they do not understand'. Yet even secrets such as these can be passed on to those who are willing to listen and understand.
To the mystic, however, the only secret worth knowing is that which cannot be told because it cannot be imparted in the way that information is relayed; it has to be gained experientially. What the mystic seeks is not mere knowledge, but understanding. On attaining such insight, the Self is put into perspective, producing humility, sensitivity and an increased awareness of one's spiritual relationship to others and place in the universe. This is the nature of real initiation. As Krishnamurti once said: 'there is no guide, no teacher, and no authority. There is only you - your relationship with others and with the world'. The Zen musician, Philip Toshio Sudo, echoed a similar sentiment: 'Do not encourage others to follow your path or someone else's, but to forge their own'. Needless to say, this level of spirituality is the most difficult to attain owing to the fact that humans are essentially pack animals, which is why the majority have an innate need to follow a leader. But it is the level that all humans on a spiritual quest must aspire to reach. It is the path of gnosis, or spiritual understanding; far removed from intellectual know-how, faith, creeds, and dependence on gurus or teachers.