There are mysteries embedded within Freemasonry, the purposes and origins of which unfortunately, the mainstream of the craft today suffer amnesia. In seeking to uncover these spiritual, metaphysical, and psychic secrets, the average mason has to rediscover the hermetic past of our traditions. Most have done this in partial and sometimes flawed ways. Saying this is not a critique of those efforts, nor is it a preface to the unveiling of a perfected system. Spiritual discovery is always tentative, partial, and subject to revision.
However, the resources available for examining and reconsidering Masonic history, and especially the origins of Masonic rituals, are expanding. Before the 19th century, the texts which early Masons, both speculative masons and those who preceded them, because I believe that operative masons were not only engaged in speculative spiritual studies, but in all likelihood knew more about them than today's Freemasons do, were fairly limited and often represented derivative survivals and redactions of a handful of classical works, themselves influenced by earlier Egyptian, Middle Eastern and Eastern texts.
For my own part, I think that elements of all of the supposed spiritual and philosophical antecedents to Freemasonry noted in the previous paragraph are the accurate sources of its traditions. It should be emphasized, although it really shouldn't be necessary to do so, that it is not necessary to prove any documentable line of inheritance to make such a claim. In truth, looking for such a direct inheritance actually is missing the point. Freemasonry is the spiritual and intellectual inheritor of those traditions whether or not any direct lineage existed. Ideas, philosophies and beliefs will resurface across space and time where and when there are people open to what they have to offer, as history and indeed the history of Freemasonry has documented.
If we look to the classical sources, the earliest influences upon modern Freemasonry, a couple of texts stand out. Perhaps the most important of these are the dialogues of Plato and Porphory's essay “ On Homer's Cave of the Nymphs.” Examining these, we may see possible sources for some of Freemasonry's philosophical positions, and at least one of its rituals – the Chamber of Reflection.
Plato presents his understanding of the human condition with an image of unenlightened beings whom he describes as imprisoned in what we today might describe as psychological darkness, unaware of the limits of their understanding. A fortunate individual may free themselves from the limitations of this “cave” and as a result of personal self improvement, as described by Carl Jung, becomes aware of the higher ethical and moral value of experience. Modern Masons, like Plato, view this sort of enlightened individual as able to serve as a source of moral leadership in the larger society. Freemasons viewed and view themselves as embodying this model.
One possible, if not the probable source for the imagery utilized in the development of the Masonic ritual of the Chamber of Reflection may be Porphyry's words. Porphyry drew repeatedly on Mithraic Mysteries stating that "the Persians, mystically signifying the descent of the soul into the sublunary regions, and its regression from it, initiate the mystic (or him who is admitted to the arcane sacred rites) in a place which they denominate a cavern.” While this may be a stretch, deductive reasoning suggests it as a real possibility, and would also explain the eventual claims of Freemasons that they are inheritors of Mithraic mysteries.
Turning to the spiritual technology behind the Chamber of Reflection, we must look beyond the myths and legends with which some in Freemasonry link their rituals with Mithraism and even their philosophical underpinnings in Greek Philosophy. Since the actual details of Mithraism remain, for all the scrutiny to which they have been subjected over the centuries, largely obscured, we must examine other sources of information. While we may be tempted to look to the modern discoveries of apparently ancient ritual spaces in Paleolithic European caves such as Lascaux, Chauvet, Coliboaia, and El Castillo and similar highly decorated spaces in Africa, Australia and South America, we are frustrated because what ultimately were the uses ancient humanity made these spaces for remain, like the details of Mithraism, indeterminate. However, we are none the less, not without the means of approaching the spiritual activities of our ancestors.
Thanks to the research of the modern social sciences, we are aware of a near universal set of spiritual practices of what formerly was pejoratively referred to “primitive” societies. We have documentation of human techniques of altering consciousness for spiritual purposes. We also benefit from extensive theoretical writing linking these recent practices with those of ancient populations. It has in fact been argued that such techniques form the basis of the world religions. While the term “Shamanism” is problematic, not only because the academics who first used the term in their writings were perhaps guilty of utilizing a name with very specific cultural references for a broader set of phenomenon it was never designed to encompass, but even more so because of its further abuse and trivialization by a modern popular school of spiritual practitioners, it must serve because it will be readily familiar to many, and precisely because it has been so widely used to describe humanity's earliest stages of spiritual experimentation.
Evidence from cave art, stretching back perhaps as much as 30,000 years, hints to the use of caves for ritual purposes. The location of some of these caves suggests arduous effort having been necessary to even reach these ancient ritual chambers. It can be aruged that the solitude experienced in such caves served as an initiatic technique intended to explore the psyche.
While modern Shamanic techniques emphasize both movement and sonic or auditory driving techniques (dance and drumming), it should be noted that more passive techniques are well documented as existing in various traditions now identified as Shamanic or containing Shamanic elements. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, distinguished between “samadhi with support” (consentration meditation) and “samadhi without support.” (opening-up meditation) By this, he referred respectively to meditation which fixed attention upon an object, thought, or even a word, and a meditation in which no intentional focusing object is used, but rather in which the individual attends to whatever thoughts or images his unconscious mind presents to him.
It should be clear by now that the Chamber of Reflection may be regarded as partaking of elements of both approaches. The Masonic imagination combined the stories provided by the Greek writers, the exotic imagery of Mithraism, with what may (or may not) have been an intuitive discovery of a technique which when combined with an initiatory ritual, which also rests upon ancient models and technologies of the spirit, quite effectively serves to intensify and enhance experience of altered states of consciousness intended to inspire the growth of self awareness and enlightenment.