An article by Doug Muder, presented May 10, 1998 at Seminar on the Western Mysteries in Arlington, Mass.
The most striking thing about the Tree of Life, when you first try to study it, is its sheer complexity. Ten spheres, 22 paths, three pillars, four worlds–and everything in sight has its own color and Tarot card and Hebrew letter. In an attempt to explain all this, authors pull in further complexity–astrological correspondences, God names, archangels, chakras. It can be quite overwhelming.
One approach to understanding the Tree is simply to memorize all these correspondences, all these relationships, and wait for a deeper understanding to percolate up from the subconscious. This style of learning works for some people and I would not want to criticize it. My own learning style leans in a different direction, however, and motivates the approach that I take here: I want to try to understand smaller diagrams, with fewer spheres and fewer paths, and work my up to the full-blown Tree of Life.
Naturally, I’m not the first person to think of doing this. In fact, I’ve borrowed the sequence of diagrams I’m going to use from Chapter 1 of Colin Low’s Notes on Kabbalah, which you can find online at http://www.hermetic.com/caduceus/qabalah/kabbalah.html. I have made up new names for the diagrams, however, and the commentary is largely my own; I don’t know whether Low would agree with all of it or not.
What is the Tree of Life for?
No architect would begin designing a house without recalling that a house is a place for people to live. Similarly, as we set out to build the Tree of Life, we should remember what the Tree is for, and use that purpose to motivate our construction. The Tree of Life has many purposes for many people. For example, it is a venerated icon of the Jewish and Hermetic traditions. It is also an object of meditation. For me, however, the purpose that stands out and best motivates its construction is this one: The Tree of Life is a diagram of human consciousness and its place in the Universe.
One Sphere–The Tree of God
Low begins his construction with a single sphere, which he labels “First Principle of Consciousness”. Ultimately it will wear the name “Kether” and be the top sphere of the Tree of Life.
I like to imagine that if God were to construct a Tree for his own use
(rather than ours), this would be it: the single sphere. God would simply
say to himself “Consciousness is.” And there would be no more to say about
Kether, taken by itself, represents the mystical insight that all is One. The ten thousand things all enter through the same gate, come from the same source, and partake of the same substance. All is God and God is All. There is no division or separation.
That first sphere is complete unto itself, and yet the construction of the Tree continues. The Tree has more than one sphere not because God needs those extra spheres, but because we do. We experience a world of division, of polarity, of complementarity, of opposition. Perhaps it is true that all things are One in God, but those of us who are not God (or who are not aware of being God) cannot hold that frame of consciousness for any length of time. We see hot and cold, male and female, rich and poor, black and white. Any map of our consciousness is going to have to contain duality.
The next two spheres in the construction represent that duality in its most primal form. Low presents them as Raw Energy and the Capacity to Take Form. Ultimately, they become the spheres Chokmah and Binah.
It is at this point that the Eastern and Western paths diverge. Eastern monism and Western monism are exactly the same, because One means One. There is no room for disagreement about what One is. But in the East, the ultimate duality is between Reality and Illusion. Reality is One, Illusion is Many. The awareness of duality is a degraded state.
This is not the case on the Western path. An important principle to bear in mind when studying the Tree of Life is that no sphere is inferior to any other. No sphere is more real or more exalted than any other. And so, there is no sphere that represents illusion. Each sphere is real in its own way. In this way the Tree of Life makes room for both unity and duality. Unity is real in Kether, and duality is real in Binah and Chokmah. We live in a world of duality not because there is something wrong with us, but because we are what we are. Being aware of duality is simply being aware of our nature.
The particular duality that the Tree represents as primal is that of Active versus Passive, that which causes change versus that which resists change, that which creates possibilities versus that which chooses which of the possibilities will be actualized. Mythologically, Chokmah is represented as male and Binah as female. Of the numberless sperm of Chokmah, a single one is selected and given shape in the womb of Binah.
The product of the union of Chokmah and Binah, of Energy and Form, is the Material World. Matter is represented by the sphere Malkuth (which ultimately will be the tenth sphere, not the fourth).
Here we diverge not only from Eastern religions, but from many Western ones as well. Matter has its own sphere on the Tree of Life, and no sphere is inferior to any other. Consequently, our existence as material beings is not a degraded state. We are not spirits imprisoned in matter, longing to escape at death. We are manifested in matter. We are no more imprisoned in matter than Michelangelo’s David is imprisoned in marble.
Four Spheres–The Angelic Tree and the Fall of Humanity
The construction at this point has a certain completeness–it is tempting to imagine that we are done. Consciousness gives rise to Energy and Form, which come together to create Matter. What more do you need to have a world?
Nothing. In fact, the mythological tradition tells us that this was the Tree of Adam and Eve prior to the Fall. (Low refers to this diagram as “the Garden of Eden”.) I like to think of it as the Tree of the Angels. In either case we run into the same question: Why isn’t it our Tree? Why aren’t four spheres enough for us? To answer that question, we need to consider what kind of beings this tree would apply to. The Angelic Tree is a diagram for beings who directly apprehends things as they are. There is no place in this Tree for illusion. There is no place for denial. There is no place from which to cop an attitude. God’s Tree had a single sphere because God can see no difference between himself and the World. The Angelic Tree is simple because an angel sees no distance between itself and the World.
As human beings, we see a lot of distance between ourselves and the World. We have (or at least think we have) a choice about whether to accept the World as it is. We live in a more-or-less continuous state of denial. There is always a gap–sometimes greater, sometimes smaller–between the World-as-we-accept-it and the World-as-it-is. (That gap is my own definition of the karma that we carry around–but that leads to a different discussion.) We are capable of living in a dream world. We are even capable of maintaining that our dream world is better than the World-that-is. We can say “Things shouldn’t be this way. That shouldn’t have happened.”
The distance between ourselves and the World goes down to the most basic levels of perception. As the ancient writers put it, we see “through a glass darkly”. The World-we-experience is not a direct apprehension of the World-that-is. It is, instead, the product of a dialog between our imagination and our senses. We see rooms with tables and chairs and people because we know how to imagine rooms with tables and chairs and people. A dialog goes on between our imagination and our senses until we imagine a room that passes the test of agreeing with our senses. But that room is and always will be in our imagination; how it compares to what actually is going on in the World is something we can never know.
Mythologically, this distancing of ourselves from the World is known as “the Fall”. The myth says that in the Garden of Eden we were as the angels. We saw God directly. We had no illusions. But we fell. We were expelled from the Garden, and now live in a world of pain, denial, and shame.
But we must be careful not to be too negative about the Fall. As we said in the discussion of duality, no sphere is privileged over any other. The Fall makes our experience different than angelic experience, not inferior. Our distance from the World gives us a different relationship to it. Many of the good things in human life–most of our forms of art, for example–take advantage of our capability for illusion and misidentification. Movies, for example, are just patterns of light on a silver screen. Only our capacity for illusion allows us to see scenes and characters and stories there. I doubt an angel would see any resemblance between the Last Supper and the oil paints that Leonardo dabbed onto canvas. Leonardo’s artistry is a product of human illusion. In addition, our ability to imagine the World in many different ways (rather than to apprehend its true nature immediately) no doubt contributes to our free will, and is responsible for our immense (if usually untapped) powers of visualization.
Eight Spheres–the Tree of the Individual
The diagram accounts for the Fall by having the sphere representing the Material World literally fall, making room for four more spheres that buffer human consciousness from the direct apprehension of things as they are. Where the Angelic Tree had four spheres–Matter, Form, Energy and Consciousness–the Fall adds four more spheres: Consciousness of Matter, Consciousness of Form, Consciousness of Energy, and Consciousness of Consciousness.
Consciousness of Matter is the sphere called Yesod. In this sphere reside all the mental constructs through which we perceive the Material World. Yesod contains everything from our abstract intuitions about space and time, line and color, to our very specific images of objects like chairs and tables. The images and constructs in Yesod correspond to every material object that we are able to perceive, including our own bodies. The activity of Yesod is particularly apparent in dreams; we experience the images without any material presence, and yet they seem real to us.
Consciousness of Form is the sphere called Hod. It contains all the mental constructs that allow us to understand and communicate–language, logic, story-telling, science, and so forth. Through the action of Hod I am writing this article and you are reading it. We communicate, and yet we remain at a distance from each other. You do not apprehend my mind directly, but rather you decode symbols–partly by understanding how the symbol-system works, but also by trying to imagine what I might be trying to say. Without your imagination, nothing would be communicated.
Consciousness of Energy is the sphere called Netzach. It corresponds to the forces that move us: motivation, desire, emotion. Through the power of Netzach we are animated or attracted or repelled. We are functioning in Netzach whenever we value one thing over another, whenever we find our direction, whenever we feel pulled to do something.
Consciousness of Consciousness: the Sphere Tiphareth
The fourth sphere introduced by the Fall is more difficult to grasp, because we are only rarely aware of it in everyday life. Consciousness of Consciousness is the sphere called Tiphareth. This is the true center of our personal awareness.
The part of us that lies in Tiphareth is perhaps most easily described by what it is not: Our physical bodies are in Malkuth; our body images in Yesod; our opinions, principles, and life-stories in Hod; our feelings, desires, and values in Netzach. None of these things are in Tiphareth. If you can imagine a sense of Self that does not depend on any of these manifestations, you understand Tiphareth.
Tiphareth is also the sphere through which we are aware of other people as conscious beings, and so Tiphareth is the center of compassion. This is worth a bit of comment, since we are capable of dealing with other people in any of the lower spheres, just as we are capable of identifying ourselves in any of the lower spheres. Even though we know intellectually that other people are conscious beings, it is a fairly rare occurrence for one person to deal with another through Tiphareth.
Again, let’s describe Tiphareth by what it is not: When I am trying to push my way onto a crowded elevator, I am dealing with other people as if they were just bodies–physical objects that are blocking my path. I am dealing with them through Malkuth. I am dealing with other people through Yesod when I care mainly about the image they add to my scene. For example, my main goal in hosting a family dinner at Christmas might be to manifest a Norman Rockwell image of family–not to interact with any of the conscious beings I am actually related to. I am dealing with people through Hod when I consider them mainly as characters in my story. A rebellious teen-ager, for example, might consider his parents and teachers as nothing more than the tyrant-characters in the story of his quest for independence. The parents, by contrast, might deal with the teen-ager through Netzach–they see only that he is or is not what they want him to be, and care little about the conscious being that he is becoming.
The sense of peace that one sometimes feels in the presence of a spiritual master (or other very mature person) is precisely the turning-down of the volume in the lower four spheres. When someone cares about you without caring about your body, your image, or your story; when he or she suspends any desire that you be one way or another; then you are being offered a relationship in Tiphareth. It is a rare gift.
The Transpersonal Spheres
Again, we have a sense of completeness. The eight spheres we have identified provide a picture of both our experience as individuals and of the transcendent realm beyond our experience. What could be left out?
To understand what could still be unaccounted for, think about the four spheres added in the Fall. Each of these spheres contains what might be called a “tool kit” for constructing experience. In Yesod, the tool kit consists of those building blocks of our physical imagination: lines, shapes, colors, textures, sounds. In Hod the tool kit is language itself, the archetypal plots and characters from which we make our stories, the ideas of deduction and generalization. In Netzach it is the ideas of value and attachment, and the positive and negative emotions through which we understand value and attachment. (The tool kit of Tiphareth is–to me at this stage of my development–indescribable.) In each case, we construct our experiences out of something that we did not invent.
If we did not invent the basic building blocks of our experience, who did? Where is the shop that made the tool kits for the four spheres of the Fall? They weren’t made in the creation of the Material World–there was no need for them. The angels get along quite well without them. It is also absurd to imagine some heroic individual thinking them up–just as it would be absurd to imagine the first spider sitting down and figuring out how to make a web. No, the construction of the tool kits was a transpersonal project. In the mythology of science, Life itself worked this out over billions of years of trial and error.
What is missing from the Tree of the Individual are precisely these transpersonal spheres, the final two spheres of the Tree of Life. Low refers to them as Creation of Form and Destruction of Form. They are precisely Trial and Error. One sphere generates the infinite diversity of the forms of our experience, the other destroys those forms that prove to be mistakes.
[An aside is necessary here to avoid confusion: “Form” is used in a different sense here from the basic Energy/Form duality of Chokmah and Binah. The forms of Binah are the forms of the World-as-it-is. They are forever hidden from us, so long as we perceive as human beings. The forms that are created and destroyed in the transpersonal spheres are the forms through which living beings (manifested in matter, after the Fall) construct their experience. And so, for example, we construct our experience in three-dimensional space. Is the World-as-it-is manifested as three-dimensional space? We can never know. The three-dimensional space we know is a form constructed in the transpersonal spheres, not in Binah.]
Creation of Form is the sphere Chesed. We may think of Chesed as the architect of living experience. It is placed on the Tree between Chokmah (Energy) and Netzach (Consciousness of Energy) because like Chokmah, Chesed is a creative sphere. It generates diversity. The three spheres together form what is called the Pillar of Mercy. We could also think of it as the Pillar of Creativity or the Pillar of Generativity.
Destruction of Form is the sphere Gevurah. Gevurah is the wolf that culls the weak and crippled out of the herd. Chesed in its generativity starts many projects that should never be finished. Gevurah sees that they are not. In this way, their relationship resembles that of Chokmah and Binah. The womb of Binah rejects countless numbers of Chokmah’s sperm for every one that it incubates. For this reason, Gevurah sits beneath Binah on the Tree. Together with Hod, they form the Pillar of Severity. We might also think of it as the Pillar of Limitation.
Because of its relationship to destruction, we are tempted to think of Gevurah as evil. This is misguided–no sphere is evil. (The same discussion occurs with regard to the planets Saturn and Mars in astrology. Saturn is the planet associated with Binah and Mars with Gevurah.) But Gevurah’s interests are transpersonal. To the extent that we are attached to our personal existence, we may find that our interests run counter to Gevurah’s. But we must never forget how greatly we benefit from Gevurah’s interventions. For example, we can only imagine what chaotic and dysfunctional emotional states were experienced by species that are now extinct. To the extent that our human emotional make-up is coherent and life-affirming, we have Gevurah to thank.
Mastery of the Spheres
A map of human consciousness can also be used as a plan of human development. With that in mind, let us consider what it would mean to master the spheres of the Tree.
Mastery at the level of Malkuth, on the one hand, represents the kind of power that technology gives us over the physical world: We can re-route rivers and level mountains. We can transport our bodies to the Moon and back. On the other hand, it represents control of our own bodies, such as a fakir might achieve: the ability to raise or lower body temperature, set aside pain, or induce an immune response.
Mastery of Yesod is the ability to control our images. Many people, for example, see themselves as small and weak, or fat and ugly, when this image is either wholly false (like the anorectic girl who thinks she is fat) or not worth the attention we pay to it. A master of Yesod would be able to notice when his/her images were false or inappropriate, and change or re-evaluate them. The master of Yesod would also have considerable control over the image he or she projects. Not wearing a tie to a fancy restaurant, for example, can be either a gaffe or a bold fashion statement, depending on the image one projects.
A master of Hod is aware of the effects of his/her words, concepts, theories, and stories, and can change them at will. Most of us are compelled to keep re-creating, re-living, and re-telling the same stories again and again–like the person who goes from one bad job experience (or bad sexual relationship) to another, and tells the same story about all of them, with only minor variations. A master of Hod recognizes these patterns and can choose whether or not to continue them.
Mastery of Netzach means mastery of desire, and the ability to shape the object of desire. If you are always attracted to the wrong kind of person, you could reshape your desiring faculties to fix this problem. If your desires for food, drink, sex, novelty, security, or excitment are out of control, you could bring them into control. Conversely, a master of Netzach is a master of motivation and personal energy, and would not be depressed, listless, or unmotivated. We all have good intentions that we can never seem to raise the energy to realize. The master of Netzach could raise such energy.
A master of Tiphareth is in control of his/her sense of self. The master could at any moment decide to be a completely different kind of person. He/she has transcended the influence of circumstance. The master is precisely who he/she has decided to be, independent of any external forces.
Speculating about mastery of the higher levels of the Tree invites the ego to have unhealthy fantasies of power, and is quite unnecessary. What we have outlined already is quite enough to aspire to. I’m sure that few can honestly read what I have written already without finding something to work on.
Mastery of the spheres is fine to imagine, but how does one achieve it? This is the Great Work. It is the purpose of the schools of the Western Mysteries, and the goal of the Western paths of development.
According to legend, someone once told Rabbi Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel stood on one foot and replied “Do not do unto others what you do not wish that others do unto you. This is the whole Torah. Everything else is commentary–go and learn it.”
I would like to think that I have done something similar here. It is not my purpose to claim that everything I left out is unnecessary, or that someone who understands this construction need never learn the many associations and rich lore of the Tree of Life. Rather, I would hope that this simple introduction to the Tree might inspire readers to go and learn.
There is no lack of resources for those who want to know more. Many books cover this subject in more detail. Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah and Gareth Knight’s A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism are quite good. A more contemporary introduction is available online: Colin Low’s Notes on Kabbalah, from which I have borrowed many ideas. Courses of study dealing with wide range topics that make up the Western mystery tradition (kabbalah, Tarot, astrology, alchemy, etc.) are available from many organizations, including the sponsor of this workshop–the Fraternitas LVX Occulta.