There is no set or right spiritual path. Each of us has our own, unique, spiritual path to walk, and with each of us our exact training and method of progression will differ. However when talking about magical practitioners, there are a set of general stages each of us goes through in the beginning. Note that an adept, typically considered the height of magical progression, is actually a very early stage in ones progression and really the point where they can start to understand more advanced spiritual work. This is because after these very early stages, it becomes near impossible to chart magical progression, because everything is going to be so different for everyone. Although these early stages differ too, when taken in very general terms they tend to be about the same for everyone.
There is no right amount of time to spend on each stage. Some people get stuck and they can spend an entire lifetime in one stage. Others can move through the stages fairly quickly. From my experiences, I’d say that each stage takes a minimum of about three to six months to complete.
Mundane - Also commonly known by other names, it typically signifies a person with no magical ability or aptitude. That however is a subjective definition that could signify some in other stages. For a more exact definition, we’re going to say a mundane is someone who is not actively trying to control the direction of their spiritual evolution. Note key words like active, trying, control, and evolution.
Everyone is always spiritually evolving, regardless of their participation. A devote Atheist is going through a spiritual progression in this lifetime, one that will lead them to the next step in their own personal spiritual path. What defines a mundane is that they aren’t active in moving their spiritual progression, instead they’re just letting it happen as it happens.
In the same way, a belief in spirituality does not necessarily mean that a person is not a mundane. Many religions do not mandate or require a person to be active in their spiritual evolution, which is different from simply being active within the religion or church, only that they be more or less faithful to the beliefs of the religion. Even a belief in psychic phenomena, ghosts, and superstitions would still only constitute a belief, not an active participation in evolution.
Neophyte – The next stage is the neophyte. A neophyte is a person that is actively exploring spirituality with no distinct direction. It is common, although far from mandatory, for neophytes to explore and try out various groups and religions to get a feel for what they’re about, read books and research religions and other spiritual and metaphysical topics to learn about them, experiment with spellwork and ritual, and experiment with exercises designed to aid in achieving phenomena such as astral projection or remote viewing.
In all ways, a neophyte is exploring. They aren’t committing to anything. They’re just trying to figure out what path will be right for them. Neophytes are always asking questions, at least to themselves in their own heads, about spirituality and are trying to find answers. In latter parts of this stage, the neophyte will usually begin coming up with theories about spirituality and start supposing about things, often times with little or no practical experience to back it up.
Initiate - The next stage is the initiate. An initiate is a person who has dedicated themselves to a specific path that will lead to adepthood. The path may not clearly lead to adepthood, and adepthood may not even be a goal of the initiate, but that is the place where the path does eventually lead.
The beginning of the initiate phase is typically the point where a person first comes into contact with their first spiritual teacher, or when they first dedicate themselves to a group which has a training program that leads to adepthood. Some initiates may be self-initiated, and in this case the initiation begins when they first dedicate themselves to a specific path, however this is much rarer.
Not all self-initiations or even group initiations are signs of a person reaching the initiate stage. Often times these acts are done prematurely when a person is still struggling with the neophyte stage. If a person’s initiation into a system is premature and they are going to be unable to see it through to adepthood, they are not yet an initiate. Remember that you can only progress forward, not backwards. An initiate can never become a neophyte (at least in their current lifetime). A person who fails on an initiated path does not revert back to a neophyte, they were never an initiate.
Also not all systems offer training that leads to adepthood, and some systems do offer training that could lead to adepthood, but not in all instances. In these cases it can be hard to tell where initiation occurs, or if it ever occurs. If an initiation into a system directly leads a person to eventual adepthood, then they were an initiate at their initiation.
The initiate stage is moved through most quickly with teacher assistance. A teacher is specifically molded to meet the needs of the student and offers clear guidance through obstacles which may impede spiritual progression and will usually discourage spiritual stagnation.
The next quickest route through initiation is with a group, as this at least offers a general guideline to progression (through the system the group uses) and hopefully puts the initiate into contact with adepts who have have already moved through the initiates phase along with peers that are currently working at the same level as the initiate, all of who can give general advice for spiritual progression and will hopefully discourage spiritual stagnation of members. On the downside many groups are specifically designed to lengthen the amount of time initiation requires, especially those that are dependent on membership dues, since initiates are usually more likely to remain in the group and pay dues and cost the group less than adepts. Also the system of initiation is a general outline designed to work with the largest amount of people, not a specifically designed system to meet the exact spiritual needs of an initiate while taking into account their specific strengths and weaknesses.
The next quickest route through initiation is self-initiation. The advantage to self-initiation is that there is at least a general guideline for the practitioner to follow. Also, the practitioner can move at their own pace and focus on the specific parts of the system that are important to them. There pace may, at times, be quicker than with a group because the group may try to impede advancement to lengthen the amount of time of the initiate phase, or they may spend a great deal of time dealing with an area that the initiate is already strong in. Self-initiation has the same disadvantage of group initiation, that the system was not specifically tailored but a general system for advancement. Also, there is no one there to help the initiate. If the initiate comes across a difficult area or something they don’t quite understand, there is no one to offer advice or help them through it. The initiate pretty much has to just soldier through until they finally get it. The initiate may also get sidetracked in the wrong direction and spend a large period of time going down a dead end path. They are also more likely to stagnate because there is no one present to encourage their spiritual evolution.
Lastly a person can become an initiate and then an adept without ever having a teacher or being initiated into any system. It does happen, although this is a very difficult route, and is usually only done by people who are gifted and born with a very strong magical aptitude. It’s also a route that can take a very long time as the person has to develop everything from scratch.
Adept - An adept is any person that is adept at performing magick. It’s a simple definition, but it’s the most true. Although adepthood varies, there are signs that can be looked for to identify an adept. I’m not going to go in depth on how to identify an adept here because I believe it would take too long and is something that is best left for its own article (which I swear I’m working on right now).
Elder - This is less a progressive stage and more a term that is used to identify position. Not all adepts will become elders. Eldership is not the next stage of advancement after adepthood. However in order to be an elder a person must first be an adept.
An elder is simply a person who is an adept and has been an adept for a very long time. They are a person who is very experienced at being an adept, and so they are in a prime position to help direct the community and the general spiritual progression of its members. They are in a good position to be looked at as an authority in the community, even among other adepts, and thus can not only offer advice, but can also identify bad advice and those who are not adepts but are, nevertheless, acting as authorities within the community.
Most elders are old. This is because eldership requires many, many years of adepthood. Unlike the other stages which can be reached faster if one applies themselves correctly, a person really can’t reach eldership at an accelerated rate. By its definition, it requires years of experience. It isn’t just the accumulation of power. It’s the knowledge that comes from performing countless magical rituals and living a magical life for a very long period of time.
However remember that old does not guarantee eldership. There is a growing trend of insta-elders popping up in the community. These are folks in their fifties or sixties who have a midlife crisis who then start looking at alternative religions. They’ll read some books and maybe practice for a year or two and then declare themselves an elder, mostly on the authority of their advanced years. These folks are rarely even adepts, and if they are, two years is still not enough time to acquire the necessary experience to be a true elder.