Gnosis has played an integral role in spirituality for thousands of years, but the 1945 Nag Hammadi discovery of a group of texts labeled the Gnostic Gospels, has made gnosis a popular subject. And like most popular subjects, conflicting information quickly accumulates that can become confusing. Let’s sift through some of the popular misconceptions as we define gnosis, gnostic and Gnosticism.
Recently, the word gnosis has been associated with ‘awakened’ or ‘higher’ consciousness. To reach these levels of consciousness, many teach that purification of the mind and body are necessary, which usually requires adherence to a specific practice and/or set of values. Others teach that gnosis necessitates a series of steps that begins with initiation and promises to culminate in full spiritual understanding. These steps are generally associated with acquiring secret knowledge that becomes progressively more arcane, and is restricted to a chosen few. Others associate gnosis with anything magical or metaphysical, such as astral travel and out of body experiences. But is this what gnosis actually is?
Returning to the original Greek, we find that gnosis actually means ‘knowing’ or ‘knowledge,’ but this is where some of the confusion begins. This is not the sort of knowledge that we attain through intellectual pursuits or esoteric information. Gnosis is a form of knowing that is strictly experiential; it comes only through a direct, personal experience. From that standpoint, we can compare gnosis to riding a bicycle. You can read instructions and watch others ride, but you will ‘know’ what riding is all about only after having the direct experience yourself. Experiential knowing is always personal; once you have acquired this ‘knowing,’ it’s impossible for you to transfer your ‘gnosis’ to anyone else. You could describe the balance and momentum needed to keep a bicycle upright, but another person won’t ‘know’ what you have experienced until they’ve had the experience too.
The word gnosis could be applied to anything that requires our direct, personal experience to understand. However, in the purest sense of the word, it means a direct, personal experience of Divine Presence. In a world where most religions and spiritual philosophies claim that either a long period of preparation or a mediator in the form of a savior or guru is needed to approach the Divine, gnosis may sound presumptuous. However, the perennial philosophy has always included the concept that the life-giving intelligence that permeates everything in existence not only wants to be known, but can be known by each of us.
How is this ultimate form of gnosis accomplished? It has nothing to do with paranormal activity, but it does require that we drop the thoughts produced by the brain and instead access the mind. We’re accustomed to using the words brain and mind interchangeably, but science is discovering they are not the same thing. Quantum physics tells us that everything in existence is permeated with, and connected by, one consciousness, one mind. Some physicists are even willing to say that this consciousness is the One Mine of the Divine, something that sages who have experienced Divine gnosis have said for centuries. Science is beginning to understand that the brain acts as a sophisticated computer-like receiving unit that’s connected to quantum consciousness, but that access is limited as long as the brain’s chatter is allowed to dominate. In other words, you are pure consciousness, not the body that consciousness projects. Sages have called this limited connection the ‘little self,’ and a clear connection with the One Mind an awakening to your true or higher ‘Self.’
Each of us is capable of accessing the mind when we willingly set aside the brain’s preconceived notions. As the gnostic teacher Silvanus stated in Dialogue of the Savior, “Bring in your guide and your teacher. The mind is the guide . . .live according to your mind. . .acquire strength, for the mind is strong. . .enlighten your mind. . . light the lamp within you.” Opening our awareness to the One Mind allows us to ‘know’ All That Is in a way that secondhand information can never reveal.
As you might guess, the term gnostic infers that something is associated with experiential knowing. For instance, the Gnostic Gospels refers to a group of writings that are supposedly based on direct gnosis. However, as we stated earlier, it’s impossible to convey gnosis from one person to another, so a written or spoken description of a personal experience will always fall far short. Unfortunately, many have decided that gnosis is only for a chosen few. Rather than experience the Divine personally, they have chosen to follow someone else who has. As a result, religions have developed that are based on the misunderstanding of someone else’s gnosis.
Some writings that are labeled as Gnostic Gospels may not be based on gnosis, but evolved from the erroneous belief that gnosis is comprised of secret messages meant only for a privileged few. These writings promote a theme of specialness and are purposely filled with arcane language, imagery and symbols meant to keep the average person from understanding the secrets hidden within. Since no ‘keys’ were included with these texts, it’s virtually impossible for the modern reader to make sense of them. Other writings, such as the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, said to be the direct teachings of Jesus, remain relevant today. Rather than taking the role of savior, Jesus’ words encourage the reader to have their own personal experience. The name Thomas meant twin, but instead of telling the reader that Jesus had a twin, the name was used to infer that anyone who experienced the Divine would become Jesus’ spiritual twin.
Although the word Gnosticism is regularly used, it is completely out of sync with the definition of gnosis. When the suffix ‘ism’ is added to a word, that word then describes a distinctive doctrine, theory, system, or practice such as Catholicism, Judaism or Buddhism. Although organizations have been formed that label themselves gnostic and claim to practice Gnosticism, the individual experience central to gnosis makes gnosis impossible to organize, let alone institutionalize. As we said earlier, willingness to let go of the brain’s preconceived notions and accept the experience without reservation makes gnosis possible, but there are no practices, systems, rules or doctrines involved. If we are to use the word Gnosticism at all, it is more accurately described as an organic spiritual approach that has been used by seekers in all cultures, eras and areas of the globe.