Esoteric Practices and the Power Complex

It is with great pleasure that we introduce you to our guest contributor Dr. John White with this essay he has written on the power complex and its role in psychological and spiritual practices. Dr. White is a certified Jungian Analyst, former professor of philosophy, and an initiate in several esoteric traditions. In addition, he serves on the Board of the Institute for Hermetic Studies.  His insights are deep, profound, and practical.


Esoteric Practices and the Power Complex

In my experience, most people become interested in esoteric practices because they are dissatisfied with their life and seek to make it better. Often, in fact, one takes up esoteric practices for the same reason one goes to psychotherapy: one feels backed into a corner, aware that the current approach to life is not working, and hopes to find in esoteric practices (like one might find in therapy) a new and more effective way of adapting and succeeding in life.

Under such circumstances, esoteric practices can exercise a formidable attraction: they promise an increased power over one’s life situation and thus the possibility of mastering the basic sources of human anxiety. For this reason, power becomes one – and often the only – basic motivation for esoteric practice, a motivation which often sets the entire context of one’s practice. Since the experience of feeling disempowered by life as well as the experience of increased power over life through esoteric practices revolve around issues of power, many esoteric practitioners are, right from the start, confronted with their unconscious power complexes. These complexes must be brought to consciousness and dealt with, if the practitioner is to flourish fully.

In practice, however, the power complex activated by esoteric practices is often not dealt with. It is easy to understand why. For example, if one experiences some success with esoteric practices, the power element in the practices can feel like a “high,” rather like a manic episode feels to a person with bipolar tendencies: when one is in the midst of it, it feels “so right;” what could be wrong with it? And, if one has achieved some modicum of success through these practices, that success itself can seem to confirm the legitimacy of one’s power high. In practice, therefore, the danger of power complexes in esoteric practice is actually largest for those who succeed at the practices.

However, it is important to understand what we mean by a “power complex,” so that we grasp its danger. It is well known in analytical (Jungian) psychology that complexes tend to be two-sided, i.e. they tend to express themselves in different and opposing ways, and thus the right relation is to hold those extremes in balance. Becoming conscious of how and when to be impacted by a complex and when not is part and parcel of finding this balance and of feeling psychologically healthy (note the similarity to the “middle way” of Qabalah). When a person’s relationship to the complex is imbalanced, he or she will attempt to repair that psychological distress by overreaction, that is, by leaping to the opposite side of the complex (“enantiadromia”). So, for example, if one is motivated to esoteric practices because one feels disempowered in life – an imbalanced relationship to one’s power complex – once one gains some success, one’s tendency is not going to be to balance one’s relationship to power, but rather to make the leap to the opposite side by exercising power too much and by taking too much delight in the pure experience of power. While this leap is understandable, given how disempowered one has felt previously, in practice the leap takes one from one form of imbalance to another. The problem is further exaggerated because esoteric practices really do amplify one’s power, making imbalanced power complexes a more likely outcome in esoteric practitioners than it might be in practitioners of less potent spiritual disciplines. Like the person suffering mania mentioned above, one feels so good in the midst of the exercise of power, especially in contrast to one’s previous disempowerment, that perhaps one doesn’t question one’s stance or entertain the possibility that one is actually just as imbalanced as before, albeit in another direction.

Yet an imbalanced power complex really is a problem, no matter which direction the imbalance takes. The great Christian theologian, St. Augustine, often describes the impact “the Fall” in terms of libido dominandi, i.e. the will or desire to dominate others. One doesn’t have to accept the specifically Christian myth of the Fall as a “Fall into sin” to see his point. Put in more traditional Hermetic terms, we could say that the Fall into matter, by a certain inner necessity, evokes power issues, since matter is the ultimate limiting principle in the cosmos. That we are both Divine Spark and yet also material and embodied (and thus inherently limited) virtually necessitates power complexes to emerge in us, born of the simultaneous yet contrasting experiences inner divine potency and materially-based limits. I suspect all of us, at least at times, feel something of the conflict between these extremes. Augustine’s analysis is therefore very much to the point: the power complex is a fundamental problem for all human beings because, insofar as we live in material reality, we feel inner conflicts concerning power and, consequently, if we avoid coming to grips with our power complex, our action will be driven by the complex – with all the implications for ourselves and for others that that suggests.

Hence, an unmanaged power complex is both understandable and in one sense normal – if one means by “normal” that it characteristically occurs in human beings who do not pay attention to themselves or work to make themselves better. Furthermore, certain esoteric practices (perhaps especially those that include evocation of spiritual entities) seem to intensify the imbalance in power complexes, with devastating consequences both to the individual and to those over whom he or she might dominate. The history of occult practitioners shows over and over again that, at a certain level of occult mastery, if the power complex is not brought into balance, disastrous consequences befall practitioners’ lives, in part because they could not find that balance or the wisdom which comes with it.

What is to be done about this state of affairs? Perhaps the old alchemical adage that nature requires our intervention to achieve its ends applies here more than elsewhere. It is imperative for the esoteric practitioner to recognize and recognize early on that temptations toward an imbalanced use of power is inherent to the magical life. There are definite practical ways of assuring balance with respect to the power complex.

1. “Know thyself” is both the first principle and the final goal of all esoteric practices. In this case, knowing where the power complex tends to emerge in one’s life is a necessary requirement for genuine spiritual growth, along with recognizing the attitudes and virtues that might mitigate its negative effect in our lives and the lives of others. Where the power complex is overactive, virtues such as self-restraint, generosity, empathy need to be practiced, in order to counteract the tendency toward domination and its concomitant vices like greed, vindictiveness, and the like. Where the power complex is underdeveloped and one feels too disempowered, virtues such as confidence, faith, self-reliance must be developed. Understand also that, as a rule, one’s power complex is typically not imbalanced in just one direction but usually in both. How often the violent bully is simultaneously internally a weak, disempowered person trying to cover for it or the mousy disempowered person is internally a seething cauldron of violent resentment that would boil over, if the person felt powerful enough to manifest it. Most of us, if we look carefully at our lives, have to develop the virtues in each direction. We need to develop an honest enough relationship with ourselves to recognize where we tend toward imbalance in each direction and develop the virtues accordingly.

2. The practice of the virtues here is not just an internal attitude but something that must be practiced and lived in the material world, consciously and intentionally. Imbalanced power complexes usually include an unhealthy connection to the Earth element, i.e. too much discomfort with the limits matter places on us all. It is therefore all the more important that one not only take the right attitudes, but also and literally embody those attitudes – Earth them, if you will – with definite, physical actions in the material world. Virtuous action gives one the dual experience of being a genuine agent – hence the experience of some level of power – as well as the experience of having to work within the material world and its limits. Virtuous action balances power and limit.

3. Purification exercises are crucial to this process, i.e. exercises that render negative and counterproductive attitudes and feelings more conscious and which aid one in mastering those attitudes and purifying oneself of them. The Simple Purification Practice in Mark Stavish’s Kabbalah for Health and Wellness is an excellent basic purifying practice that, if practiced properly and consistently, can bring imbalances in the power complex to clarity and help remove the imbalance.

4. Living a genuinely esoteric and magical life means giving primacy to theurgy, i.e. to practices whose goal is liberating and releasing the Divine Spark that is latent and hidden in each one of us. Classical religious statements about the Divine often underline the limitless power of the divine; yet they also tend to emphasize that, though divine power is in principle unlimited, that power is in fact exercised according to measures other than that of power, such as justice or love. Similarly for us: there is nothing inherently problematic about power, but an imbalanced relationship to power usually means that we have treated power to some extent as a kind of end in itself, rather than something whose exercise is to be measured by other ideals such as love, care, mercy, justice and so forth. Theurgic practices should aim at liberating not only power but all the excellences symbolized in our vision of the Godhead in us. The more the Divine Spark is released within us, in all its fullness, the less likely our attitudes and actions will be driven solely by power.


John R. White, Ph.D. (Pittsburgh, PA) is a Jungian psychoanalyst and mental health counselor. He was a philosophy professor for twenty years, prior to becoming a psychoanalyst, and his current research interests concern the various links among psychology, parapsychology, philosophy and esotericism. He has been a student of several esoteric traditions.

Kabbalah for Health and Wellness by Mark Stavish


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  1. Dr. White, a most insightful article discussing the psychoistic dangers of occult studies.I have seen such issues arise in a number of students. I tell my students that they must support a conviction that power is not of any value, but altruism and remembering that the ends never fully justify the means will keep them balanced. Best to you and Mark, Michael Jon Kell MD PhD


  2. Dr. White has done an excellent job of refecting on the power of contact with esoteric phenomena and equally, the unconscious power of the external myths that most, in our society, inhabit. Indeed it is not uncommon in analytic practice to find an individual whose contact with the internal reality of life sends them shuttling back and forth between competing powers, pulled in alternating directions, in between which, the ego seems like a hapless sliver of iron between two competing and powerful magnets. One minute it falls into the orbit of all that had lain occluded from sight, another realm, whose powers it had only dimply sensed, if at all, before hand but is suddenly flooded by. The next it is swept back into the powerful collective myth which shaped its outer nature. There are perils on both sides and Dr. White has pointed to the necessity of ritual to contain these polarities. Analysis is one such ritual but there are many others besides. It would seem to me that the power complex that he is speaking of is something less willed, than it is indicative of contact with powers greater than human will, with which the existing ego has little hope often of contending. The infusion of the power complex appears to me as a possession rather than an acquisition. This state of affairs has always been the reason for the emergence of ritual, a container whose form takes into account the nature of both realities and holds their natures in relatedness to the ego consciousness allowing it the “middle path”, in which it forsakes neither but also does not surrender consciousness entirely to the powers that would ultimately draw it blindly under their spell. Dr. Whites commentary is entirely pragmatic as it suggests to us not only the power lying in the esoteric realm of experience, but also some of the difficulties that may arise as we try to embrace that realm of richness. In that process it seems easy to lose ones balance.


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