An Introduction To Kabbalah, Part 4: Kabbalah As A Spiritual Practice

Kabbalah enables the "receiving" of more and more of reality, with more and more depth and sensitivity. Let's see how this works, in each of its three streams.
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Kabbalah is a centuries-old body of literature, but for those who study it today -- whether in its classical form or contemporary ones -- it is not simply read, like a novel or a blog. Rather, like yoga or meditation, there's a perception that Kabbalah is meant to do something: calm you down, open your mind, give you the secrets of the universe, whatever. This is the fundamental aspect of spiritual practice -- that it does something, and transforms the self in an important way.

While this exact notion of practice is somewhat foreign to Kabbalah, if we were to view Kabbalah as a spiritual practice, how would it work? We've explored over the past three weeks what Kabbalah is, how it conceives the basic question of our existence, and how it answers that question in three distinct ways. But before moving on, it makes sense to ask: what's the point? What does Kabbalah do for us as human beings?

Let's start with a basic premise that, ordinarily, each of us is only perceiving a small sliver of our environment at any moment. Scientifically, and intuitively, we know this to be true. If our minds did not filter out perceptions deemed to be extraneous, we would be flooded with useless sensory input and unable to do anything. We would be like infants. Thus, our minds develop to screen out what is irrelevant, and organize perceptual information in ways which, experience has taught us, work.

And yet, as we all know, sometimes we screen out the important stuff -- love, wonder, joy -- and let through the garbage. We're obsessed with mental junk food (click that link -- I dare you!), and we are evolutionarily wired to get stressed over things which we know are ultimately not important but which, in the moment, seem to threaten the self. Without these instincts of stress and self-preservation, our ancestors would've been eaten by wolves. Today, they give us road rage. Such is the conundrum of being human.

Many forms of spiritual practice serve as a counterbalance to these necessary but suffering-causing instincts. Meditation, for example, allows one to observe the mind more clearly; to relax; to become better attuned to feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations so that one isn't quite as reactive. Yoga untangles the body and aligns the soul. Traditional religion reminds us of important values, and (when it works) demands that we live up to them.

And Kabbalah? Recall that the word Kabbalah means "receiving." Though historically this word refers to Kabbalah being a "received" tradition, we might also say that Kabbalah enables the "receiving" of more and more of reality, with more and more depth and sensitivity. Let's see how this works, in each of its three streams.

1.Theosophical Kabbalah

Theosophical Kabbalah helps practitioners "receive" more and more of reality by closely attuning them to the depth and breadth of it -- in particular, the symbolic and energetic structures of that reality, in text and in life. Beginning with the ten "sefirot," which we'll explore next week, theosophical Kabbalah describes countless physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual symbols, correspondences, and relationships.

As one learns these symbols, one deepens one's vocabulary of experience, and becomes more and more attuned to the minute fluctuations of it. What today might be called "energetic shifts" are, in Kabbalistic parlance, minute transformations in the structure of experience itself. Even the most ordinary of moments gives birth to endless networks of associations, levels of understanding, and hidden structures. If you really immerse yourself in theosophical Kabbalah, learning the Zohar, coming to know its symbols, you will discover for yourself that the chains of associations begin to flow very easily. You can "jam" with the Zohar the way a jazz musician jams on a motif in a composition. You can feel the interplay of energies (and I use this term very loosely) in your lived experience. And you gradually begin to open up, deepen, and receive.

It works -- but the it does take a lot of learning and effort to test it out for yourself. Theosophical Kabbalah is not like basic meditation, which anyone can pick up with just a few days of practice. It exists within an elaborate context of symbols, language, and religious structures, which is one reason it is often reserved for advanced students. Many spiritual seekers today are convinced that any spiritual path can be learned quickly, in one's spare time, and in English. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. You can learn Kabbalistic symbols, acquaint yourself with its core truths, and deepen your appreciation for life through some of its ideas. But make no mistake: the deeper work takes a lot of time.

2.Prophetic Kabbalah

Prophetic Kabbalah (sometimes called "ecstatic Kabbalah") has a more familiar, and accessible, path to "receiving": meditation. The precise techniques of Abulafia and his students do depend on the Hebrew language, but I've found that they can be transposed into English fairly easily. What those techniques do is loosen the grip of thought, just like insight meditation. Their method, though, is very different: they scramble the mind, a bit like Zen, and unchain the subconscious, a bit like some forms of psychoanalysis. With free association, letter permutation, and many other techniques, the practices of prophetic Kabbalah scramble up the thinking mind, enabling more direct perception of reality.

Just from this short description, you can see how different the methods of prophetic Kabbalah are from those of theosophical Kabbalah. Prophetic, or ecstatic, practice does not fine-tune the senses to the minute fluctuations of the sefirot; it shakes up the mind until it can see reality directly. Now, prophetic Kabbalah does still work with the language and topics of Kabbalah -- sefirot, letters of the alphabet, Divine names, and so on. However, it uses those resources to engender a mystical experience.

It, too, works, though it, too, takes a lot of practice. You can taste the fruits of ecstatic Kabbalah fairly quickly if you devote even a single night to it -- but you do need to devote the whole night, permuting letters and allowing the mind to free itself up. Critically (as described in the prophetic Kabbalah section), the point is not to get high; it's to receive insights. You will, if you do the practices, get high -- by which I mean, you will attain an altered mind-state that will hopefully be fascinating and delightful for you. (It may also be frightening, if you have fears or insecurities that arise too strongly.) But to just drift along in the altered mindstate, blissing out, is to miss the point. There are fruits to this practice, "messages" that seem to come from outside, or from deep inside -- which are really the same place. It will be obvious to you how Abulafia would understand these messages as prophecy from God. Whether you see them that way, or see them only as your deepest self speaking to you -- well, that depends on your theology. But don't ignore them; they're part of what you're there to receive.

3.Practical Kabbalah

Finally, practical Kabbalah also has its path to "receiving." Returning to the basic assumption at the top of this page -- there is more than what we usually perceive -- practical Kabbalah aims to attune us to specific "frequencies" (again, a term used loosely and metaphorically) that we ordinarily tune out. What is magic, really, but a tapping into energies and potencies we normally ignore? It's easy to say, from a position of doubt, that these potencies are nonsense, that we don't believe in magic. But without direct experience, how do you really know? Because there are charlatans on television? Because there's been no "scientific" study of it? Well, how could scientific studies work, when the intentions of the participants (there should not be any observers) are what determine the outcome?

I'm not saying you should believe in magic. In fact, I'm saying the opposite, that you shouldn't believe in anything. But that includes your own preconceptions. Believe nothing. Experience everything.

On the path of practical Kabbalah, practitioners attempt to discover, and use, aspects of the world which we don't yet understand. Some of it, undoubtedly, is psychosomatism. And some of it is probably hogwash. But, in my experience, some of it is real -- not necessarily explicable, but practically indubitable. What one learns, when one's preconceptions about the world are shaken in this way, is that there is more to receive than we ever imagined. There are layers of reality, energies of reality, that are out there, but of which we are not ordinarily aware. So practical Kabbalah, too, enables us to receive more.

These ways of receiving are experiential, and, as a result, my review of them accentuates some aspects of the Kabbalah at the expense of others. There are some who would say that Kabbalah is entirely a textual phenomenon, and that to talk of experience at all is a mistake. But the Kabbalists themselves describe experiences -- not always in the classic "mystical testimony" form, but in various ways in different sources. And I think that if we do not involve the experiential element in our own learning, we are reading recipes instead of tasting the meal. Is that really a deep knowledge of truth?

See you next week.

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