Kabbalah – the Tree of Life

Kabbalah is the ancient heart of Jewish mysticism; a deeply profound philosophy of life. It has been said that if you study Kabbalah seriously you will have at your fingertips the secrets of life, the universe, everything… However it is no instant fix: it takes years and years of deep thought and meditation. Kabbalah is not a religion or a sect, it is simply a highly complex map of life, a key to this world and all the other worlds that are said to lie beyond our own.

Daniel C. Matt, author of The Essential Kabbalah says, “The kabbalists made the fantastic claim that their mystical teachings derived from the Garden of Eden.” However, even if Kabbalah is not that ancient it still has a venerable history. The account of Moses and the burning bush and the testimonies of the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel show clear links to Kabbalah. However the main Kabbalistic text the Sefer Yetsirah, or Book of Creation, was apparently composed in Palestine sometime between the third and sixth centuries.

While Jewish scholars usually restricted their studies to the Bible (Old Testament) and the Talmud, only a few researched the far more cerebral, spiritual and mystical texts of the Kabbalah. Daniel Matt says the Kabbalah jumped to Europe, to Provence in particular, towards the end of the twelfth century and over the next hundred years it spread to Catalonia and Castile. Further texts appeared, including the highly influential Zohar, composed in a trance state by a Spanish Jewish mystic called Moses de Leon in the thirteenth century.

Since then many mystical traditions have used Kabbalistic symbolism – from the Freemasons to the Rosicrucians. It was taken up by occultists such as Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune who brought it to the public eye by writing about their experiences in numerous books. In the last few decades the knowledge has become popularised by books by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki and Will Parfitt who have concentrated less on the complex theory and more on practical ways to use the knowledge.

Kabbalah offers a map of creation – from the first intention of God down to the lowliest micro-organism on the earth; from the swirling mass of energy and matter which we now understand as the basis of quantum physics to the everyday anxieties and worries that make up our individual psyches. Although the Kabbalah is essentially Jewish in origin, it embraces all creeds and religions. And despite the fact that the other great Jewish religious texts (the Old Testament and the Talmud) are so intrinsically male-centred, the Kabbalah shows a vision of male and female in perfect balance – it offers the ultimate in equality. Equally it does not shy away from the concept of evil. While Kabbalistic texts speak of angels and archangels, they also point out demons and arch-demons. The Kabbalistic world is one of opposites held in balance. So perhaps it’s not surprising that such a revolutionary system should have stayed underground for so many years.

Kabbalah can be as simple or complex as you wish. Some people simply use the symbols of the central symbol of Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, as a source of meditation – to help them understand different aspects of themselves or their lives. Others study it in great depth, poring over scholarly texts debating the various attributes of the Tree of Life. Others see it as a true mystical path, offering a direct route to a closer experience of God. And some others use it as part of a magical tradition, to develop power and control over all aspects of themselves and their lives.

The Kabbalah explains that God created the world by divine speech. As the Bible says quite clearly: “God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.” And “By the word of God the heavens were made; by the breath of his mouth, all their hosts”

However kabbalists go into far greater detail. God used specific sounds, words which also had specific numerical significance, to create the sephiroth – ten spheres that map the path from pure divinity down through various stages into the material world. You could say that the true language of Kabbalah is mathematics. Modern commentators also point out that the Kabbalah’s descriptions of creation can be understood in light of the new physics.

By meditating on the spheres and paths of the Tree of Life it is said that we can gain deep insights into our own natures, into our place in the world and even into the nature of God. Will Parfitt who has written one of the best practical introductions to Kabbalah, The Living Qabalah, maintains that the Kabbalah can help you do virtually everything better – from expanding consciousness to relating and communicating better; from formulating ideas with more clarity to communicating with “extra-dimensional entities”.

The Tree of Life lies at the heart of Kabbalah. Scholars say it offers us a map to the conscious and unconscious, to the world around us and to the many hidden worlds that lie above and below our everyday consciousness.

By meditating on the individual spheres, the sephiroth, or travelling the paths from sephirah to sephirah (in a form of guided visualisation called pathworking) the kabbalist can gain understanding of himself and communicate with his higher consciousness, discarnate “masters”, angels and archangels.

There are vast tomes written on the complex symbolism, meanings and applications of the various spheres on the Tree of Life. These are the basics:

• MALKUTH – The Kingdom. Malkuth corresponds to the body and to the material, outer world, our universe. It is the lowest sephirah, the closest to our everyday life and hence the starting point for all kabbalists and for all journeys on the Tree. It represents the contact between our bodies and the world outside; how we relate to the physical world through our senses. The aim of the kabbalist in Malkuth is to see the vision of the Holy Guardian Angel. The main colours of this sephirah are yellow, olive, russet and black flecked with gold. Its symbols include the equal-armed cross, a double cube and the magic circle.

• YESOD – The Foundation. Kabbalists tend to think of Yesod as embodying the subconscious – everything we have picked up from our past and carry within us, often repressed, largely unknown. It also holds all our future potential. Yesod is equally linked with our sexual nature and with the Moon. The task of Yesod is to balance our selves, to make ourselves whole. Its colours are indigo, violet and very dark purple. Its symbols are perfumes and sandals.

• HOD – Glory. Hod is linked with the mind, the intellect and our will-power. It is the sephirah of communication and its task is to learn true and honest communication, both between the various parts of your total self and with others. It is also the sphere linked with magic and spells -with “mental” magic. Its colours are violet, purple and orange. Its symbol is the apron.

• NETZACH – Victory. This sephirah is associated with feelings – positive and negative energies such as love and hate, joy and sorrow. The task of Netzach is to learn how to be governed by the “higher” emotions rather than be at the beck and call of the lower emotions: to cultivate unselfishness, altruism and true feelings of love. Netzach is a beautiful sephirah, concerned also with all manner of creative art – painting, dance, music (whether you participate or observe). Its colours are amber, emerald and olive flecked with gold. Its symbols are the rose, the lamp and the girdle.

• TIPHARETH – Beauty. Tiphareth lies at the centre of the Tree of Life. It is often known as the Christ-centre. Tiphareth represents the centre of the whole person – the self, the ego, the soul – pure self-awareness. The lesson of Tiphareth is to live in harmony, to have a clearly defined sense of self that derives from equal shares of thinking, feeling and sensing. At this point on the Tree the task of the kabbalist is to contact and converse with the Guardian Angel (linking yourself with a sense of the eternal, the spiritual). Tiphareth’s colours are rose-pink, yellow and rich-salmon pink. Its symbols include the cross, the cube and a truncated pyramid.

• GEBURAH – Severity. Geburah is a tough sephirah of judgement and unmitigated truth. It is linked with personal will and power. When balanced, this brings about strength, order, activity and focused awareness; when unbalanced, it can manifest in manipulation, selfishness, pride, over-ambition and competitiveness. In this sephirah one needs to be totally honest with oneself. Its colours are orange, bright red and scarlet. Its symbols include the pentagon, the sword, the spear and the scourge.

• CHESED – Mercy (sometimes known as Love). This sephirah is concerned with the manifestation of form – not form as we understand matter but rather the “thought” forms of the mind. The challenge in Chesed is to balance the experience of love – to foster feelings of caring, sensitivity and co-operation without descending into dependence, attachment, the inability to say no and an over-desire to please. The colours of Chesed are deep violets, purples and blue. Its symbols include the orb, the wand and the sceptre.

• DAATH – Knowledge. Daath is the one sephirah which is not situated on the Tree, it is the mysterious hidden sephirah that lies in the middle of the Abyss, above Tiphareth and below Kether. Many kabbalists see Daath in a negative light – as representing knowledge without understanding, restriction and dispersion. It is also the prime link to all that is evil and demonic in the world. A great demon called Choronzon is said to live in the Abyss – known as the “consumer” of human consciousness. However translated into psychological terms, it could be said that the Abyss holds all the unresolved and irrational elements of the psyche and that no-one can cross the Abyss into true spirituality without resolving these aspects.

• BINAH – Understanding. Binah is the earliest manifestation of purely feminine force on the Tree. It is also the first appearance of form. Energy is just starting to turn into matter. Below Binah lies the “abyss”, the gulf between the actual world below and the potential world above. Binah is known as spiritual awareness and love and the experience of Binah is known as the “Vision of Sorrow”, on one hand an understanding of the full impact of the “fall” of humanity; on the other a knowledge of the healing power of true grief. The colours of Binah are primarily crimson, black and dark brown. The symbols include the cup or chalice.

• CHOCKMAH – Wisdom. Chockmah signifies spiritual will and purpose, the result of applying spiritual purpose to understanding. The experience of Chockmah is that of seeing God face to face. Chockmah represents the dynamic thrust and drive of spiritual force – the primal masculine force. The colours of Chockmah are primarily soft blues and greys. The symbols of Chockmah are all phallic symbols – standing stones, the tower, the rod of power.

• KETHER – The Crown. The fount of Creation, where life begins, where there is no distinction between male and female, energy and matter. No-one alive can fully experience this sphere which represents union with God. However kabbalists can glimpse the glory of God through this sephirah. Kether is light, its colours are pure white brilliance and white flecked with gold. The main symbol of Kether is the equal-armed cross, the swastika (which was an esoteric symbol long before the Nazis colonised it).

Most kabbalistic practice involves the development of visualisation and meditative powers, the ability to move through the Tree, experiencing the individual worlds it contains. This simple exercise, described in The Living Qabalah, gives a taster.

• Set aside a short period of time and make sure you won’t be disturbed.
• Visualise yourself and the space that surrounds you as completely enclosed in a sphere of bright blue light.
• Take up a comfortable position (sitting or lying is best for this exercise). Close your eyes and breathe deeply and slowly.
• Now imagine a rose-bush, see its roots, stem, leaves and flowers.
• Focus on an individual closed rose-bud, enveloped still by green sepals. Take time to visualise all the details as clearly as possible.
• Imagine the sepals starting to open, turning back to reveal the petals inside – tender, delicate, still closed. What colour is your rose-bud?
• Now the petals themselves slowly begin to open. As they do so, realise the identity between this rose-bud and your heart. Be aware of a blossoming also occurring in your heart.
• Imagine a ray of sunlight strikes the opening rose-bud, illuminating it. As you see this, feel it inside also.
• Identify the opening of the rose with the opening of your heart. As the rose reveals its full beauty and glory, take in its perfume, sense it enriching your inner being.
• Stay with the experience for as long as you wish, then return to normal consciousness – either draw your rose or write down your experience.