By Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi
In Kabbalah, the most immediate and important area of study and practice is one's own self. Without knowledge of human nature there can be no wisdom or understanding, indeed any development. The lower Trees of Jacob's Ladder, that is, of the body and the psyche, are the two most accessible. When the anatomy of the physical organism is put on the Tree, the whole of the organic evolution can be seen. There are, for example, the seven levels of Nature. At Malkhut are the mineral, metal and elemental dimensions. Above, at Yesod, are the lower plants; then come the higher plants. These are followed by plant-animals; over them are seen the invertebrates, above which come the higher animals. At the top is humanity which incorporates all that is below. As regards the physical body, the four Worlds are seen in miniature in the mechanical, chemical, electronic and conscious levels.
All these levels are in the potential of the fertilised egg of the mother. However, according to Kabbalah, the body's configuration already exists in the World of Formation. Called the zelem or shadow, it is gradually filled out as the individual grows physically from infancy to adulthood. The zelem also carries the psychological character over from the last and previous other lives. This accounts for the difference between siblings, even though they have the same family and ethnic genes. The embryonic body is connected with the psyche at the moment of conception and is fused with it at the moment of birth.
Some people can remember their birth and even what occurred prior to it. Such a memory can recall departing from old friends in the higher Worlds or having a flash forward insight into their fate, which is partly determined by the state of the cosmos. A birth chart is about the astrological principles that govern life on Earth. For example, there can be no summer and all its activities without the Sun being in a certain position in the northern hemisphere. It has also been noted, over thousands of years, that people born in the winter tend to be introvert while the zodiacal position of the Moon appears to influence the character of the ego. The disposition of the planets has a similar effect on various aspects of the psyche. A strong Venus, for example, seems to generate a sensual temperament, while an afflicted Mars stimulates indecision.
The psyche is half-embedded in the body. Where they interact is the domain of the Nefesh or the instinctive mind. Freud called it the "Id", the sexual drive with its libido and mortido principles, that is, flight or fight, submission and aggression reflexes. In contrast, the soul triad of the Tree pivots on the Self of Tiferet that relates to Jung's view of individuation. The lower part of the psyche intermeshes with the electro-magnetic field of the body. The result is that the psychological capacity to act, think and feel is greatly influenced by the senses and the state of the body. The ego or ordinary mind is more or less automatic, due to the demands of the body and the attitudes and habits acquired from the family and society. These are stored in the upper side triads as the Super Ego and Ego Ideal, which manifest as the unconscious punishment and reward complexes that govern most people's lives.
The ancient and medieval Kabbalists did not know about the anatomy of the body in detail, but they did understand the levels present within. They saw the carnal organism in terms of the four elements; earth being its solids, water its fluidic processes and air as the activating life principle. Fire was related to consciousness. The rabbis also recognised the mineral, vegetable and animal levels of intelligence within mankind and classified individuals according to their conduct.
The psychological Tree is a very complex entity. However, everything is integrated and interacts through the sefirot, triads and paths. In general, the side pillars and triads are concerned with active and passive functions, while those on the central column are associated with various degrees of consciousness. Body awareness is easy to identify and so, to a degree, is that of the ego. The feeling triad can be identified with psychic sensitivity, such as picking up others' moods, while the awakening triad is where we are particularly alert.
The triad of the soul is the place of Self-consciousness and choice. It is here that free will is exerted. However, this can only be applied to the full when the individual has their psychological centre of gravity well established in this soul triad. For most people, the soul lies hidden in the unconscious.
The soul triad is centred between the emotional complexes and the triads of concepts, to which it has access and by which it is influenced. The emotional triads contain all the personal experiences of pain and pleasure which evolve into a vast number of interconnected memories. Some of these are easily accessible and some are not, for a number of reasons. They can range from lack of potency to strict repression. For example, one cannot remember people who are not memorable or those one would rather forget. The triads concerned with concepts are about the values of one's family, ethnic background and culture. The left-hand triad is about structure and restraint. For example, an orthodox Jew would never consider eating pork or think robbing a bank acceptable, while their right-hand dynamic triad would consider giving to charity and devout prayer as obligatory. This is the power of cultural conditioning.
The great triad of Tiferet, Binah and Hokhmah is the transpersonal spiritual dimension that is deep within the unconscious. For those who consider inner development, this is the Land of Milk and Honey. Such a spiritual experience of this cosmic order is obtained through the psychological Hokhmah or Revelation, Binah or Reason and Daat, the veil before the Divine triad at the head of the Tree of the psyche. This has, through Keter, its Crown, direct contact with the bottom sefirah of the highest Tree. Here is where the three upper Worlds of Formation, Creation and Emanation meet. Below, at the place of the Self, the Keter of the body, the Tiferet of the psyche and the Malkhut of the spirit come together. This means that there are three aspects to the Self; Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Once the essential simplicity of the Tree and Jacob's Ladder has been absorbed, it is easy to comprehend the system. This is why the study of theory is important.
There are three spheres of influence. The Personal Consciousness is centred on the ego and mostly concerned with the routine of life. The Self with its three levels is the pivot of the Individual Unconscious. From here it is possible to attain an insight into the Collective Unconscious, the Spirit and the cosmos. Here is the place of prophecy and the gateway to the Divine.
This is the broad outline of the lower half of Jacob's Ladder. One may react intellectually or emotionally to its wondrous elegance. However, it is action that is required to make such knowledge real and part of one's life. It is not enough to read every book on Kabbalah or even practise some of its exercises. Nor is it enough, as one group did, to sing and chant texts they did not understand, believing this would enlighten them. It is only by a commitment to applying increasing consciousness to the theory and practice that Kabbalah becomes real.
5. SCHOOL OF THE SOUL
A school of the soul might take place in the back room of the synagogue, the salon of a private house or even out in the open, as described in The Zohar. The meeting place is the Malkhut of the Tree of a school. Like any organism or organisation, a school is based on the sefirotic model. Otherwise it will not function as a complete entity.
The next element, at Yesod or the Foundation, is that of the students. They may meet at an annual congress, a weekly gathering or an everyday meeting. Some schools may come into being for a short period, others for just a teacher's lifetime or be in existence for several centuries. They may consist of a handful of committed individuals or a large ongoing stream of people passing through an organised system of training. Unlike the usual academic or religious establishments, a school of the soul may have no fixed outer form. Moreover, it may be radical or conservative by nature, depending upon the need of the time and place.
One example of an unconventional school was the medieval rabbi who had his wife teach basics to newcomers. This was done discreetly as it did not conform with the current culture but she had the knowledge and skill to teach and was better at introducing the system. Contrary to common belief, as there were women Judges in the Bible so there have been female mystics. The wife of the great Rabbi Akiba, according to legend, had greater foresight than he.
Schools have different levels within the ways of Action, Devotion and Contemplation. Some are preparatory groups which introduce people to the theory and practice of their particular line. A course might take a year with each individual tested to see how committed they are to the Work. They might be asked to do certain mundane duties such as cleaning, buying food or taking notes. The story of Jacob having to work many years to make Rachel his wife is symbolic of this. Often the most seemingly keen quickly drop out, usually to go to another school and then another, all of their lives, always backing off when real effort is required.
There are schools of the soul and teachers that are not what they appear to be. For example, a school may be no more than a shell of what was once a living tradition. In another case, a school might be run by people who are too concerned with the money it can generate. Such organisations are usually maintained by people who are more interested in power than development. Some of the hallmarks are a certain arrogance, excessive discipline and intolerance.
In a living school there is usually an openness and respect for other esoteric traditions. The teacher treats everyone as an individual, regardless of how long they have been on the Path of Truth. A genuine school of the soul helps the student to become increasingly aware of their inner processes as well as their fate and the higher Worlds.
The awakening triad of Tiferet, Hod and Nezah is concerned with meetings and initiations. The real process of initiation takes place within each person as they begin the next phase of development. It can sometimes occur during a meeting stimulated by a remark from the teacher, during a ceremony or even at home. It can also happen while on an inner journey to the celestial Jerusalem. This is a kabbalistic exercise in which, through a guided meditation, one might visit the Academy on High. Through an act of conscious imagination, it is possible to encounter one's own Inner Teacher. Such a moment of vision and revelation can change the outlook of a lifetime.
The soul of a school usually takes its character from the school's founder. They may have long passed on but their legacy continues until it is no longer relevant in a new period. Often such advanced people will choose to be reborn to renovate the school or start another that has a new mission. An example of this was the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic school, who had to transform a very difficult historic situation.
The spirit of a school is a combination of its oral and written teaching that links it to a mainstream spiritual tradition, such as Kabbalah. The intellectual structure of philosophy, law and science together with the dynamic factors of religion, art and literature are the basis of civilisation. At the centre of the spiritual triad is Daat, the esoteric factor of direct knowledge and experience. In Islam the Sufis hold this position, while in ancient China the Taoists represented the mystical dimension of the empire. Without the presence and influence of the schools of the soul, there would be no civilisation.
In the topmost triad is the essential Teaching, which is universal. An example is Neoplatonism, the teaching of Plotinus of Alexandria, which has underpinned the philosophical and inspirational aspects of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish mysticism. Such real knowledge is to be recognised by Native American, African and Asian shamans as well as by the spiritual masters of India, China and Japan. It is only the outer form that is different.
The importance of Kabbalah is that it is part of the Judeo-Christian-Hellenic tradition that underlies the history of Western spirituality. This was recognised in the Renaissance by the European intelligentsia. Indeed, Kabbalah made a contribution to the various schools of the soul such as the Alchemists and Freemasons. The Alchemists invented a complex, technical language which only the initiated could understand. Their texts and practices talked about making gold out of lead. This was a symbol about transforming the grosser parts of a human being into a more refined spiritual vehicle. It was based upon kabbalistic principles, as was Freemasonry that used Solomon's Temple as a model.
At the present time, Kabbalah is undergoing a reincarnation, not out of ancient or medieval texts and practices but contemporary science and psychology which are the equivalent to the language of symbolism of the Bible and the metaphysics of the Middle Ages. There was tremendous resistance to philosophy in the Middle Ages with books being burnt and people declared heretics for introducing a seemingly radical new form. The same resistance by the ultra-traditionalists is occurring in this 21st century but no one can stop development if it is meant to happen. There is no religion higher than Truth.
The process of human evolution began with the first two souls incarnating on Earth. It continues within each of us as individuals. In potential, everyone is unique. This is seen in the astrological birth chart which sets out the pattern of the current life. However, not all avail themselves of their full possibilities but prefer, for that life, to remain at a level that is comfortable, either because they do not wish to make any effort, or they choose the familiar rather than risk the uncertain on the road of personal development.
This choice also relates to societies. Some communities choose to remain within an old and familiar pattern while others, at crucial points in their history, realise that change is vital to their collective development. In the former case there is no evolution and so, as has happened throughout history, they stagnate or disappear, overwhelmed by a more dynamic culture. Those that do rise to historic opportunities flourish, or flounder if they misuse their moment of destiny.
Fortunately with each reincarnation of an individual or soul group, the possibility of activating their potential is always present. This is dependent partly upon what their distant or recent past has brought into the present. If it is negative, a lesson has to be learned but, if positive, they can then fulfil the role for which they were "called forth, created, formed and made", as the Bible puts it. Here is where the chain of fates becomes destiny within the fabric of history. This is seen in individuals and soul groups who move through time, being reborn at just the right time and place to stimulate a new phase of art, invention or discovery and even a great civilisation. Such individuals and soul groups at the spearhead of history volunteer to reincarnate when they are needed because of their long experience, skill and vision. They could remain in the upper Paradise or one of the seven levels of Heaven but, from time to time, they choose to descend Jacob's Ladder to help humanity to fulfil its mission. This is a very long-term operation that has been going on over tens of thousands of years.
Far into the future is the End of Time and the Fourth and final Journey, when every person and community will have completed all that was possible in this cosmic cycle. Then the Great Ladder of Existence will be rolled up and every being will return to the Divine Realm. According to tradition, they have to account for their performance before taking their original position within the radiance of Adam Kadmon. At this point the final brush-stroke will be made, as the accumulated experience of all humanity adds the Light of Self-consciousness to the eye of this Divine Self-portrait. When the Absolute gazes upon this now complete image, God beholds God in the Mirror of Existence.
So it is that history is much more than one's own personal journey, the saga of humanity and the story of the universe. History is about your moment by moment contribution to evolution, as the future becomes the past in the process of the Eternal Now. Here is where I AM THAT I AM is present in each and all of us. Such is the kabbalistic view of history.
* Selected chapters from A Kabbalistic View of History: Introduction to the World of Kabbalah. Text and illustrations © Z'ev ben Shimon Halevi. Published by Kabbalah Society (www.kabbalahsociety.org)