An Introduction to Kabbalah Part 7: Use Your Illusion

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As we are about to begin a multi-week exploration of the concept of the sefirot, let's reframe our exploration of Kabbalah (sorry for the Chanukah-inspired, New-Year-inspired, and then Avatar-inspired interruption in posts) in experiential terms. We've explored Kabbalah conceptually and historically (a little). But what does this all mean, from the point of view of experience? Are Kabbalists ascetics, renouncing the world and living on top of mountaintops? Are they mystics, unifying with God? What's it like to study Kabbalah?

Well, if you're looking for traditional "mystical experiences" in most of Kabbalistic literature, you'll be disappointed. There are a few, but not many. As scholar Melila Helner Eshed's recent book on the Zohar shows, most Kabbalists are more interested in the experience of expounding text than the typical "I melted into all of reality" type of experience. Angels, demons, magical occurrences - these take place, in the Zohar, primarily as a result of uncovering secrets about our experience.

The "ultimate secret," as we've explored before is one shared by most of the world's contemplative traditions: that despite the world of appearances, there is only One reality. Different traditions may conceive of that One as impersonal Being, or as Brahman, or as God, or perhaps as a "Web of Life" including all of us within it, but for all the differences of metaphysics, the practical endpoint is usually the same: the self as we understand it is an illusion, and forms do not have separate reality.
Okay, but, well, that's not the whole story, of course. We all look both ways before crossing the street, right? Those car "forms" are pretty dangerous, aren't they? To some radical traditions, not really: they insist that all our experience is basically maya, or illusion. This world, they say, is like a kind of trick, and the enlightened life transcends it and sees the unified truth beneath. (Maybe this is why my taxi driver in Kathmandu was such a reckless driver... but I digress.)

Theosophical Kabbalah has a very different view. In the theosophical Kabbalah, it's not that the world of duality is false, exactly. It is true on a level of perceptual reality -- the level most of us spend most of our time inhabiting. And that has some meaning to it. The Zohar explains that the notion of God depends on a manifested world; without the world, there really is no "God," because there's no relation, no Other. There is the Ein Sof, the Infinite. But, the Zohar explains, God is a concept which depends on the concept of manifestation. (For those familiar with deconstruction, perhaps this seems familiar.. but I digress again.)

This view is the Kabbalah's secret meaning of the union of the male and female principles. The male principle, symbolized by the (phallic) line, is that which divides the unified one (female - circle) into conceptual dyads. Good and evil, dark and light, past and future -- these concepts do not really exist in the One. The feminine circle is always Now, always Here, always God Godding itself. Well, which is right? Is the feminine principle right that everything is One and that it is always Now? Or is the masculine principle right, that there are multiple objects in the universe, across temporal and spatial dimensions?

For the Kabbalists, both are right. Ordinary consciousness, in which 1+1 = 2, is right. Mystical consciousness, in which 1+1=1, is right. There is both two and one -- this is the higher mystery of union. It's the original fuzzy math.

In practice, what all this means is that, while Kabbalah is heady, it is also heartful, embodied, and spiritual. The point is not to flee from one plane of experience to the other. It is to richly experience all four, and to balance among them. Most Kabbalists were not ascetics. Most had wives, and had sex, and ate and drank and led rich emotional lives. The heroes of their books do too. And in fact, to understand everything in this world as having a correspondence in heaven is to insist on the importance of this world.

So, let's take a different, less historical but more personal perspective on the idea of the sefirot. When you become angry, and then you relax, and then you feel in balance, there are many ways to understand what has happened. Probably, most of us use a rough sort of psychoanalytical language to explain the change in our emotions. Perhaps some of us even know the physical/ physiological account of what went on. But Kabbalistically, what has happened is an excess of one sefirotic "energy," (not a Kabbalistic term) was balanced by another, and eventually brought into some kind of harmony. It wasn't "you" getting angry - it were these different aspects of the sefirot acting within you. This doesn't disclaim responsibility; it describes, in this cosmology, what is really going on. In the language of the sefirot, it is fair to say that the world is made up of oscillations between lovingkindness and judgment, as much as it is comprised of atoms.

Notice that what exists on the macrocosm -- out there on the cosmological scale -- also exists on the microcosm, here inside of you. The universe, for the theosophical Kabbalah, is structured holographically; the part reflects the whole in its form and structure, and, indeed, contains the whole. (More on that below.) So, you may think of the sefirot as proceeding from the Divine cosmologically, or as present within you psychologically -- even physically. For the Kabbalists, this is no mere coincidence; it is how they interpret humanity being made in the Divine image.

The philosophical God does not feel, does not change, and does not interact with the world of form. The Kabbalistic Godhead of the sefirot mediates between the unchanging Infinite and the world -- and so the sefirot are bearers of feeling, dynamism, and energy. Our emotional prisms through which we experience our lives are reflective of the Divine structure of the universe itself. And by understanding that structure, we can come to experience our emotions, our bodies, our minds, and our true nature more fully.

Next week, we'll begin our multi-week exploration of the Sefirot, God's body, which is also yours. See you soon.