The problem of esotericism and morality can be expressed like this: if esoteric practice is about creating higher consciousness and not about being good so that you will be rewarded in an afterlife, doesn’t that give students of conscious evolution the licence to be selfish and to take advantage of others?
The short answer to this is no. The working of higher centers means more transparency, more light, and transgressions against other people thrive best in darkness. In other words certain actions and intentions hinder the realization of higher centers–they lead to darkness or to sleep–and the student of esotericism understands this and to some extent remakes himself in the light of what opens up his awareness. Think about it this way: people who take advantage of others set up partitions in their mind to keep them from having emotions about what they are doing. Sometimes they are blinded by justice or revenge or by the belief that even though what they are doing is wrong, that, in the end, a greater good will result from their actions. It’s curious to note that these justifications almost always refer to the past or the future. You say to yourself: I may be doing something wrong now, but the evil in the past or the good in the future justifies my present wrongdoing.
The perception of higher centers breaks down our sense of separateness. The more we increase our consciousness the more we increase the reach of sympathies. There are many popular contemporary philosophies and spiritual theories that preach individualism and success over more traditional spiritual qualities like humility and service. In some cases these philosophies are a reaction to the failure of traditional religions; in some cases they are attempt to give a selfish and instinctive lifestyle a spiritual context; but in some cases these philosophies are based on legitimate principles of esotericism. In the latter case, it should be understood that the first stages of a spiritual quest almost always include a discovery of self (or essence), and that many people get stuck in this phase and never move forward toward the disintegration of self.
A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake. ~ George Gurdjieff
The whole question of how our actions towards other people impact our movement toward higher centers seems, at first, incredibly complex. But this complexity is mainly the result of the mind trying to understand what it can never understand. Once the heart works without interference from the mind and from negativity, much about other people and our relationship with them becomes clear.
Traditionally people who aspire to consciousness either withdraw from other people or choose to remain in the world and try to do some good. Both paths are legitimate, and both have their own benefits and difficulties.
Almost all religious traditions have hermits and monks, who choose to live outside of the temptations of society. For certain types of essences, this approach is the most practical. It simplifies many things. By limiting the influences of other people, the hermit or monk focuses more squarely his quest. He removes, or, at least, limits the influence of many issues that can distract him from his goal of awakening higher centers, issues like relationships and sex, the problem of good and evil, the problem of justice in society, the temptations of greed, and much else. He concentrates all his energy on study, on limiting desire, and on learning practices like being present and transforming his solitude. One of the dangers of this approach is that the monk may find that some of the states of consciousness that he achieves in the conditions of solitude may be impossible to maintain in other conditions. For example he may achieve a temporary peace of mind in solitude, but when circumstances require him to rejoin society, he may find himself gripped by the same frustrations that drove him into solitude in the first place.
In general the best way to awaken higher centers is in the circumstances in which you find yourself.
The fourth way requires no retirement into the desert, does not require a man to give up and renounce everything by which he formerly lived. ~ George Gurdjieff
The fourth way insures that whatever you gain will not be lost in other circumstances. But even within the framework of the fourth way it is possible to be more or less active. You may choose to have a job in society out of necessity, but not become involved in moral or political issues. You may live in society and yet not allow yourself to be drawn into the conflicts of the day. This is a legitimate path. People who follow this path sometimes feel that world is past saving, that the confusion in the outer circle of humanity is beyond any help they can offer. They continue to live in the world but withdraw emotionally. They retreat by not participating in the battle.
Others may feel the need to spread ideas and fight on the side of compassion and love or attempt to demonstrate that anger, frustration, greed, and fear are traps that lead only to unhappiness. The main requirement for this path is a capacity to not identify with the results of your struggle to do good. There are many people who help others, but, because they identify with the good that they perform, they fail to awaken higher centers. They take their identity from the role that they play, rather than from the consciousness that is mastered by self-rembering, by transforming suffering, and by other esoteric practices. They try to help others before they master themselves. They are the people who ‘save the world, but lose their soul.’
What is important to keep in mind about changing the world is that the only change that is lasting is inner change. When your actions are the result of love not fear, of compassion not greed, then you are on the right path. People who try to do good, or right wrongs, out of anger or revenge are stuck in a kind of vicious circle that not only limits them but also perpetuates violence and intolerance in the world. You see it every day in world politics, where violence is used to combat violence and indignation and revenge are given as justifiable motives to killing innocent people. It is possible to force people to act in a certain way for a time if you threaten them with violence or poverty or damnation, but it won’t last. Their anger and violence will eventually erupt. Serving other people needs to be based on helping them find what they can depend on, in their inner world, not on forcing them to behave in a way that suits your needs or beliefs. As I said, only inner change, change that is motivated by a real desire to be different, is lasting.