Esoteric study groups of the face-to-face kind are mercurial beasts. Interest tends to wax and wane, and attendance is anything but consistent as members occasionally choose to deal with more mundane matters on meeting day. When I lived in the Hartford, CT area in the ’70s, there were numerous opportunities to meet regularly with kindred spirits, centered around the Astrological Society of Connecticut and the Hartford chapters of the National Council for Geocosmic Research, the Theosophical Society and the Spiritualist Church. There was also a fairly large population of dedicated seekers. Tarot was not yet on the radar screen, so most of the activity was astrological. While they weren’t necessarily robust, there were options.
When I moved to rural Southwestern NH in the late ’70s, the situation was entirely different. I encountered one or two struggling bookstores, survivors of the New Age shakeout that occurred on the fringes of the major population centers, and an even rarer far-flung astrologer, who was mostly “howling in the wilderness.” We (my wife and I) connected with a couple of the astrologers very briefly in a local study group, but inside of six months everyone had gone their separate ways.
Sometime later we tried to get a study group going on Hermetic subjects, primarily esoteric tarot, astrology and Tree of Life symbolism. There was no internet and certainly nothing like Meetup at that time, so I went the in-store bulletin-board posting route. We attracted interest from one person over a hundred miles away, and that was the end of that. We tried again when Meetup came into existence; that time I received a contact from one person in Great Britain who said she was “from the next town over” (I guess she didn’t notice all that intervening water), thinking I was in an English town of the same name. There were a few Neopagan and Wiccan meetup groups within driving distance, but nothing of the Hermetic persuasion. Back to the wasteland for a few more years.
The rise of the internet seems to have been the savior of shared esoteric experience, although of a rather anemic, watered-down variety. It’s easy to communicate but hard to really connect with a core of like-minded individuals who want to pursue a single subject in depth. Amazon claimed the territory of the New Age bookstores, so those venues have mainly dried up. We did have a study group going on the Voyager Tarot in “the next town over,” but the leader became ill (by that time, however, regular attendance had dwindled to only four people). Back to the desert once again, looking for the next oasis.
That development brings me to the real subject of this post: what makes an “ideal” esoteric study group? Here’s my personal punchlist:
It requires at least one energetic, enthusiastic person to act as the “glue” binding everything and everyone together.
It should be centrally located for prospective members, so nobody has to drive too far to get there.
It must have a free or inexpensive meeting place that is available on a scheduled basis. Private homes are ideal, but not everyone wants the intrusion. Bookstore communal spaces are acceptable but the shopkeeper should be enticed by the promise of selling books and study materials to the group. If locally available, library meeting rooms are also a good choice.
Its other expenses should be minimal, essentially limited to the cost of printing hand-outs. In that regard, a nominal donation should be encouraged. Members should also buy their own books and any other study materials identified by the leaders.
It should attract a mix of seasoned and novice practitioners of the chosen topic(s) of study, one to teach and the other to inspire the teachers.
It should have no more than six to eight participants; any more than that and exercises can become unwieldy.
It should have a set curriculum or study plan so the discussion doesn’t wander all over the landscape. On the other hand, it should also allow some free time for unstructured socializing within the context of the subject. (Some of the best learning can be informal.)
It should have a single focus area to begin with (for example, tarot or astrology) and then branch out according to the stated interests of the members. Occasional one-time digressions to present special topics should be allowed.
It should meet monthly, for no more than two hours at a time (excluding longer affairs like occasional day-long workshops).
It needs someone to make the cookies. (Just kidding, some things are too much to expect.)
The two main obstacles to success, at least in my experience, are attracting enough interest to keep it going, and having a good place to hold meetings. Not having a large enough local and regional population of enthusiastic participants to sustain revolving attendance is another potential shortcoming, especially if the group is not based in an urban or suburban area. The learning opportunity offered by such marginally supported study groups can too easily degrade into a tutorial arrangement with only two or three active members, and that’s not the purpose as I see it.