Practical Kabbalah

Chapter 5

Practical Kabbalah

“But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that's all right said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I'll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

“Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

“Then the lion said - but I don't know if it spoke - “You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

C.S. Lewis

From an historical and traditional perspective the practical techniques of Kabbalah include techniques of mysticism and (to a lesser extent) magic to be found the world over: complex concentration and visualisation exercises, meditation, breath control, prayer, ritual, physical posture, chanting and singing, abstinence, fasting, mortification and good works. Many different combinations of practice were used at different times and places, and it is clear that practice grew more out of the temperament of the individual than from a long historical tradition. From time to time an outstanding teacher would appear, and a school would form, but these schools tended to be short-lived, and one is struck more by the diversity and individuality of the different approaches, than by (what is often presumed) a chain of masters handing down the core of a secret tradition through the centuries. A problem with trying to find an authentic tradition of Kabbalistic practice is not only is it difficult to identify just what such a tradition might be (given the diversity of approaches over the centuries), but more importantly, the keys to many of the practical techniques have been lost. In her book on Kabbalah [1], Perle Epstein makes a number of wry comments about the state of Kabbalah in Judaism today, and regrets the loss of a practical mystical tradition. Outside of Judaism the situation is little better; Kabbalah has become an element in the syllabus of many traditions, but its practical application is often limited to exercises such as pathworking. It is instructive to examine the Golden Dawn initiation rituals [2] as an example of what happens when Kabbalah is boiled up with a mixture of ingredients drawn from Greek, Egyptian, Rosicrucian and Enochian sources - there is a pervasive smell of Kabbalah throughout, but it rarely amounts to a meal.

The following description of Kabbalistic practice makes no attempt to be comprehensive; on the contrary, I have chosen only those practices with which I am personally familiar. This will be unsatisfactory to those readers with an academic or historical interest, but these notes were intended to have a practical value, and I see no value in trying to describe techniques I have not used. Epstein [1] provides a useful introduction to the breadth of Kabbalistic practice, and the personalities which have shaped Kabbalistic thought. I am aware that there will be those who would not wish to associate the name “Kabbalah” with the practices I am about to describe - although I am not Jewish, I respect the beliefs of those who are - but at the same time there is a great deal of variety in nearly two thousand years of Kabbalah, and one living tradition is worth at least as much as several dead traditions. There is no right or canonical tradition of Kabbalistic practice.

The practice of Kabbalah as I will describe it is underpinned by the theosophical structure I have outlined previously in these notes. First and foremost comes the belief that there is a God. The ultimate nature of God is neither known nor manifest to us, but just as light can be passed through a prism to produce a rainbow of colours, so God manifests in the creation as ten divine lights or emanations, usually referred to as sephiroth. Each of one of us is a part of God, a microcosm, a complete and functioning simulacrum of the whole, and so God similarly manifests within us as ten divine lights. Because we can look in the mirror of our own being and see the reflection of the macrocosm it follows that self-knowledge shades imperceptibly into knowledge of God, and as the whole of creation is an emanation of God, so self-knowledge moves the centre of consciousness away from a subjective awareness of reality towards an objective and non-dualistic union with everything that is.

The second key idea is that the emanations or sephiroth are aspects of the creative power of God. On a macrocosmic scale, the creation is seen as the continuing outcome of a dynamic process in which creative energy manifests progressively through the sephiroth; at a microcosmic and personal level the same process is at work, and this is the Kabbalistic interpretation of the notion that we are “made in God's image”. By understanding the elements which comprise our own natures, by going far enough inside ourselves to understand the energy and dynamics operating within our own consciousness, so we touch the same energies operating in the universe. When we have touched these energies we can call on them; one name for this process is “magic”. Traditionally these energies are called upon by name, and are characterised in concrete ways - the list of correspondences given in Chapter 2 of these notes provides many ideas as to how these energies are likely to be observed at a level where we are most likely to observe them. The Kabbalistic Tree of Life is an abstract representation or map describing the creative energy of God and the process of manifestation.

And that is it, in essence. How literally you take these assumptions is up to you; my attitude resembles that of the engineer Oliver Heavyside, who didn't care whether his self-invented mathematical methods made sense to mathematicians (they didn't), as long as his calculations produced the right answers (they did). I will talk about angels and archangels and names of God, powers and sephiroth and invocations, and leave it to you to make your own sense of it.

But to return to the discussion of practical Kabbalah: one can identify two major kinds of practical work arising out of the assumptions above. From the idea that we are made in the image of God we can conclude that by knowing ourselves we can (in some degree) know God; this leads to practical work designed to increase self-knowledge to the greatest degree possible, a process I will refer to as initiation. From the idea that we can call upon aspects of the creative energy of God to change reality we arrive at practices intended to increase personal power. Kabbalah has divided along these two paths, and I believe it is accurate to say that traditional Jewish Kabbalah is predominantly mystical, with the emphasis on union with God, while non-Jewish Kabbalah is predominantly magical.

It is easy to sit in judgement of these two approaches; many authors have done so. To seek for union with God is to seek to do God's will; the world-wide mystical agenda is composed largely of the subjugation of ego and the replacement of personal wilfulness with divine union. Magic is seen to be predominantly wilful, and so shares the original Satanic impulse of pride and rebellion against the divine will. It is easy to conclude that mystical union (devekuth, or “cleaving to God”) is the true goal, and magic an “egocentric” aberration of consciousness.

It is difficult to provide a rational counter to this argument: to be rational is to fail to appreciate the ineffability of mystical insight, and to argue is to demonstrate Satanic wilfulness - one is condemned out of one's own mouth. Nevertheless, there is a middle way between the two extremes, and in what follows the process of initiation is combined with the use of magical techniques in a blend which I believe captures the best of both approaches. I have chosen to describe the process of initiation first because I have the romantic notion that an ethical sense grows out of self-knowledge. I follow that with a discussion of some general magical techniques.

One of the meanings of the word “initiation” is “the process of beginning something”. What is one beginning? One is committing oneself to find answers to certain questions. What questions? The questions vary, but they are usually fundamental questions about the nature of life and personal existence: “why is the world the way it is?”, “why am I alive?”, “what lies behind the phenomenal world?”, “why should I continue living?”, “what is good and what is evil?”, “how should I live?”, and “how can I become rich, famous and sexually attractive without expending any effort?”. It happens (for no obvious reason) that there are people who cannot escape the nagging conviction that some or all of these questions can be answered, and the same people are determined to wring the answers out of somebody or something. The situation resembles a cat in a new house; the poor creature will not rest until it has explored every nook and cranny from the attic to the crawlspace. So it is with certain people; they look out on the world with cat's eyes, and metaphysical and philosophical questions are like dark openings into the attic and crawlspace of existence. And it happens that every question, when followed with enough determination, leads back to the questioner. What is the pre-condition for knowing anything? We are the attics and crawlspaces of existence, and so in the end we forced to look within, and know ourselves. There is another aspect to initiation: on one hand we have the desire to know, and on the other hand we have the desire to be something else. Initiation is also the beginning of a process of self-transformation, a process of becoming something else. Becoming what? Answers vary, but in the main, people have a vision of “myself made perfect”, and if they believe in saints, they want to be saintly; if they believe in God, they want to be united with God. Some want to be more powerful, and some want to be rich, famous, and sexually attractive. Two easily observable characteristics of people looking for mystical or magical training are a lust for knowledge and a desire to be something other than what they currently are. A bizarre situation indeed; not only do they seek to know what they are and why they are, but even before they know the answers, they want to be something else.

Kabbalistic initiation is a process of increasing self-knowledge, and an accompanying process of change. It is based on a practical experience of the sephiroth: if each of us is potentially a simulacrum of God, and if the creative energy of God can be described in terms of the dynamics of the ten sephiroth, then by understanding the dynamics of the sephiroth within us we begin to understand the nature of the God within, and by extrapolation, the nature of God in the absolute. The learning process (like most learning) mirrors the alchemical operation of “solve et coagula” - that is, before we can reach the next stage in knowledge and understanding (“coagula”) it is necessary to break down what already exists into its component parts (“solve”). This can be observed whenever we attempt to learn a new skill; we begin in a state of unconcious competence where we can do many tasks without difficulty, but when we try a new skill we find that our old habits are a positive obstacle, and we become unconsciously incompetent - we approach a new task in an old way and make a mess of it. When we have made enough messes we either give up, or we realise the necessity of change, drop old habits as a prerequisite for acquiring new habits (solve), and become consciously incompetent. Finally, with enough practice (coagula), we return once more to a state of unconscious competence, ready to begin the cycle one more time. The process of kabbalistic initiation leading to increased self-knowledge begins with the sephiroth, and each sephira contains within it a world of “solve et coagula”, a world where one may function with limited unconscious competence, but to reach a new level of understanding and competence one must go through the fire and experience the energy of the sephira deliberately and consciously.

What possible advantage could there be in understanding the nature of a sephira? What “things” are there to be learned? In answer, there are no “things” to be learned. A sephira is not a particular manifestation of consciousness (e.g. pleasure), or a particular behaviour (e.g. being honest, being kind); the sephiroth underpin manifestations of consciousness, they are the earth in which behaviours (and their opposites) are rooted, and by understanding a sephira one burrows underneath the phenomena of consciousness and grasps an abstract state of becoming (emanation, or sephira) which gives rise to phenomena. This is a magical procedure; when one ceases to identify with the shopping list of qualities, beliefs and behaviours which can be mistaken for personal identity (a necessarily fixed and limited abstraction) then one touches the raw substance of becoming, and it is on the power to manipulate the “becoming” of reality that magic is based. The closer one tries to get to the energy of a sephira, the more one must abandon the artificial restrictions of personality; the mystical quest for self-knowledge and the magical quest for personal power unite in the same place.

There are many ways to investigate the nature of the sephiroth, but one of the simplest and most direct is to ask the powers of the sephiroth for help. In principal all one has to do is call upon the powers of a sephira, and ask to be instructed. There are three potential problems with this procedure. The first is that it is like asking to be dropped in a wilderness; you may learn to survive, or you may not. The second possible problem is that people tend to have a natural affinity for some sephiroth and not others, and left to themselves tend to develop their knowledge in a lop-sided manner. Lastly, many people do not know how to call upon the powers - you can't ask Gabriel to help you if you don't know Gabriel, and you don't know how to contact Gabriel. But, if you knew someone who knew Gabriel….

The time-honoured method of initiation into the nature of a particular sephira is to ask someone who has had that experience to invoke to powers of the sephira on your behalf. The person chosen as initiator would use the techniques of ritual magic to invoke the powers of a sephira with the intention that you should receive instruction and insight into the nature of that sphere. It works. Metaphysical theories may be impossible to prove or disprove, supposed magical powers evaporate in the physics laboratory, but people who undergo this kind of initiation can change visibly and even claim to have learned something. One can argue about the objective reality of the Archangel Gabriel and the Powers of the sephira Yesod, but it is difficult to dispute the validity of initiation when someone changes his or her outlook on reality and actually does things differently as a consequence.

I would like to clarify some possible misunderstandings. This kind of initiation is not a ceremony with a fixed and lengthy script, like the masonic-type rituals which have become so closely associated with magical initiations. The initiation ritual I am describing is a challenge; it is a one-to-one encounter between an initiatee, and an initiator who acts as agent for the invoked powers. If there is a script it is minimal; the purpose of the ritual is not to impart secrets, or impose a view of the world, but to challenge the initiatee to demonstrate a personal and individual understanding relevant to the initiation. The success of the initiation depends on the initiator's ability to invoke and channel the powers, and on the initiatee's willingness to be challenged at a deeply personal level in an atmosphere of trust. The challenge aspect of initiation is a vital part of its success; it creates a catalytic stress which can act to bring about sudden and sometimes dramatic changes in perspective. The initiation is also a challenge for the initiator; each initiatee is different and approaches the same place from a different direction.

This kind of initiation is not a lightweight procedure. It is easy to abuse it. The purpose of initiation is not to select for conformity (quite the opposite), but it must be said that it is easy for an initiator to use an initiation to enhance personal power. This is a problem in esoteric systems which use an apprenticeship system and is not unique to this particular form of initiation.

Self-initiation is possible and may be the only option for many people. It suffers from a number of disadvantages:

  • people are naturally self-important and endow their opinions, attitudes and prejudices with far more importance than another person would. Working with another person produces beneficial friction.
  • it is easy to make excuses to yourself which you wouldn't make to another person. Their presence is a challenge to make an effort, or do things differently.
  • magical work can produce dramatic changes in behaviour. An observer can provide useful feedback.
  • most of Kabbalah isn't “facts”; it is “ways of being”, and an excellent method of learning is to let someone else demonstrate.
  • it is easy to reinvent the wheel when working by oneself.

None of these difficulties are insurmountable. Joining an amateur dramatic group as a conscious and deliberate magical exercise should provide some of the raw input needed, and provide lots of stress, friction, and challenges to one's personal world view. It is easy to think up other examples. What is important is not to treat practical Kabbalah as something separate from normal life, but to use normal life as the stimulus to put Kabbalah into practice - this is a traditional Kabbalistic idea. If you can't do it in ordinary life, you can't do it.

It is easy to mystify initiation and pretend it leads somewhere different from the “school of hard knocks”. It doesn't. Ordinary life is a perfectly adequate initiator, and people do change in many ways (sometime dramatically) as they grow older. At most initiation may go further. It can and should accelerate the process of acquiring self-knowledge and (in theory at least) lead to someone who has explored their personal microcosm in a broader, deeper and more systematic way than someone who has had to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” in the patchy and random sequence that is our common lot. The Kabbalist should be able to go further in exploring and analysing the extremes of consciousness, boundless steppes in the shadowland of “not-me”, where daemons of “otherness” threaten the fragile ghost of personal identity.

Much of what an initiator does is to ask questions. If you want to carry out a self-initiation you will have to ask your own questions. I will use the sephiroth of Hod and Netzach as examples to show how the sephirothic correspondences can be used to ask questions. Suppose you want to identify those behaviours and attitudes in your personality which are underpinned by Hod and Netzach. Read the correspondences in Chapter 2 for Hod and Netzach and try to decide. Are you impulsive? Do you do what you want to do and ignore people who warn you of the consequences? Do you have strong passions for things, people, places. If asked why you are doing something, how do you explain yourself - do you give elaborate rationalisations, or do you say things like “I haven't any choice”, or “you made me do it”, or “I just want to”, or “I can't explain why”. Do other people tell you to stop being irrational? Do you find it hard to suppress your emotions, do you think you are transparent to others? Are you furious one minute, miserably sad the next, do your moods and feelings change on the fly?

On the other hand, you might be someone who is concerned with the protocol of relationships and situations (you worry whether it is right to kiss on the first date!). You like to talk about things and have definite ideas about the right and wrong way to conduct a discussion - you refer to this as “being rational”. You analyse your conduct in some detail according to a constantly developing set of rules, and you dream up hypothetical situations to test your ability to apply these rules - you don't want to make a mistake. You are skilled at handling problems with many rules, and may be adept at cheating the rules. You have a clear grasp of high-level abstractions and might work in law, medicine, finance, science, or engineering, where you can use your ability to apply rule-based knowledge. You might feel uncomfortable with a display of emotion in another person, particlarly when it cuts across your sense of protocol, and you keep a tight rein on your own emotions. Other people may find you sharp but clinical, able to communicate verbally but poor at responding to real-life situations involving emotional conflict, poor at any problem where there is insufficient information, where variables cannot be quantified, or where there is no abstract model.

The first set of behaviours is appropriate to Netzach, while the second set is appropriate to Hod. Few people are purely one thing or another, and behaviours change according to circumstance - drinking alcohol tends to shift people from Hod-type behaviours to Netzach-type behaviours. A person may sustain a Hod persona at work, then go to a bar in the evening and become the complete opposite. My favourite Hod/Netzach joke concerns the (real) couple who were asked which of the two sephiroth they had the greatest affinity to. The man responded “Well, I feel I'm Hod”, and the woman replied “I think I'm probably Netzach”.

The analysis can be taken further. Suppose you have identified a large number of Hod-type behaviours in yourself. The virtue of Hod is honesty or truthfulness, and its vice is dishonesty - the power of language to represent and communicate information about the world automatically brings with it the power to misrepresent what is going on. How often are you dishonest? With yourself? With others? In what situations do you sanction dishonesty? What value do you perceive in dishonesty? Are you capable of giving a purely factual account of a failed, close relationship without rationalising your own behaviour? Try it, and ask a good friend to score the attempt. I must emphasise that there is no moral intent in this dissection of personal honesty - it is an exercise designed to expose the way in which we represent events so as to make ourselves feel comfortable.

The illusion of Hod is Order, and the qlippa or shell of Hod is Rigid Order. It is easy to observe during discussions and arguments how people try to defend and preserve the structure (or form) of their beliefs. Do you know anyone with an unshakeable view of the world? Does it annoy you that no matter how ingenious you are in finding counter-examples to his or her view, this person will always succeed in “fitting” your example into their world view? What about yourself? Do you collect evidence which reinforces your beliefs like someone collecting stamps? Are you conscious of trying to “fit” and “interpret” the evidence to support your beliefs? Why are your beliefs important? What is their actual value to you. What would happen to you if you gave them up?

You can do the same thing with the sephira Netzach. The illusion of Netzach is projection, the averse face of empathy, the tendency to incorrectly attribute to others the same feelings and motives as I have. Suppose I am sexually attracted to someone; I look at this person and they smile in return. What does that smile mean to me at that instant? How many different mistakes might I have made? Suppose I say to someone “I know how you feel”, and they retort angrily “No you bloody well don't!”. One of the fastest ways of alienating someone is to consistently misinterpret how they feel. Are you constantly puzzled why people don't share your taste in clothes, music, literature, films, art, or decor? Do you feel that if only their eyes were opened, they might? Do you ever try to convert people to your taste? How do react when they aren't impressed? Do you make secret judgements which affect the way you treat them? Have you ever discounted someone because their taste offended yours? What value does your personal aesthetic have to you? What would happen if you gave it up?

As you can see, this is not a procedure where anyone (barring yourself) is going to provide answers. Questions, yes; lots of questions, but no answers. Asking the right questions isn't easy; we tend to have a peculiar blindness about our own behaviour, beliefs, and attitudes, and that translates into an unconsciousness of what we are. One of the oldest jokes that children play is to stick a notice on someone's back saying “Kick Me”. The poor unfortunate walks around and wonders why his acquaintances are behaving oddly - tittering, sneaking up behind, and so on. He can't see what other people can see clearly, and he hasn't the power to understand (and possibly influence) their behaviour until he does see. Suppose an “initiator” walks up and says:

“Have you looked at your back recently?”

“Ahhhh….!” says the victim in a sudden flash of insight.

According to folk wisdom, asking questions is a dangerous business. Asking yourself questions certainly is. It hurts. It has no obvious benefit. You may find yourself hating yourself as you penetrate layers of self-deception and dishonesty only to discover a fear (or terror) of changing, and pious resolutions and commitments fall apart in the face of that fear. You take off the first skin, and then you take off the next skin, and then you take off the skin under that. Then you get stuck. You can't go any further by yourself - you haven't the courage to do it - and at the same time you can't go back to what you were. A blind and deaf man can stand happily in the middle of a busy road, but give him sight and hearing for only a second and that happiness is gone. It is at this point where it helps to have a faith in a power greater than yourself - your Holy Guardian Angel, God, the Lion, whatever.

In summary, the process of kabbalistic initiation described above is based in detail on the map of consciousness provided by the Tree of Life and the correspondences. The sephiroth are explored by using ritual magic to invoke the powers of the sephiroth for the purposes of initiation. Incidents in ordinary life are interpreted as challenges or learning experiences supplied by the powers. Major steps in the process of initiation are marked by observable changes in the initiatee, and confirmed by an initiator whose role is primarily that of a catalyst. This technique of initiation has been used for at least one hundred years, but its execution has tended to be marred by a good deal of superfluous dross - elaborate ceremonials and scripts, pompous and often meaningless grades and titles, and magical systems so vastly elaborate that the would-be initiate spends more time looking at the finger than the moon.

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