Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar

 

Zohar

Instead of an original essay this week, I wanted to highlight an excerpt from my ongoing study of The Zohar. The Zohar is an extensive work in the Kabbalistic tradition. Three volumes in and it continues to amaze me with the beauty of its writing and the depth of its philosophy. On the surface it is a reading of the Pentateuch, with the author(s) extracting a mystical system from its pages. Going deeper, they twist and mutate its language into stunning new vistas. The amplification of Torah is part of the religious function of the Kabbalist: to contribute new blossoms to the Tree of Life. As The Zohar says in Va-Yeshev: So all depends on Torah, and the world is sustained only through Torah – sustaining pillar of worlds above and below (129).

This exemplary passage touches on familiar themes found throughout the book: the creation of the universe and our world, the darkness found within Eden, and its redemption.

Rabbi Hiyya opened, ‘A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless YHVH builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain (Psalms 127:1). Come and see: When it arose in the will of the blessed Holy One to create the world, He issued from the spark of impenetrable darkness a single vaporous cluster, flashing from the dark, lingering in ascension. The darkness descended, gleaming – flaring in a hundred paths, ways, narrow, broad, constructing the house of the world.
     The house stands in the center of all, countless doors and chambers round and round – supernal sacred sites, where birds of heaven nest, each according to its species. Within emerges an immense, mighty tree, its branches and fruit nourishing all. That tree climbs to the clouds of heaven, is hidden amid three mountains, emerges beneath these mountains, ascending, descending.
     This house is saturated by it; within, it secretes numerous supernal hidden treasures, unknown. Thereby this house is constructed and decorated. That tree is revealed by day, concealed by night; this house rules by night, is concealed by day.
     As soon as darkness enters, enveloping, it rules: all doors close on every side. Then countless spirits soar through the air, desirous to know, to enter. Entering among those birds – who collect testimony – they roam and see what they see, until that enveloping darkness arouses, radiating a flame, pounding all mighty hammers, opening doors, splitting boulders. The flame ascends and descends, striking the world, arousing voices above and below. Then one herald ascends, bound to the air, and proclaims. That air issues from the pillar of cloud of the inner altar, issuing, it spreads in the four directions of the world. A thousand thousands stand on this side, a myriad of myriads on that side – the right – and the herald stands erect, proclaiming potently. How many there are then who intone songs and render worship! Two doors open, one on the south and one on the north.
     The house ascends and is placed between two sides, while hymns are chanted and praises rise. Then the one who enters, enters silently, and the house glows with six lights lustering in every direction. Rivers of spices flow forth, water all beasts of the field, as is said: watering all beasts of the field . . . Above them swell the birds of heaven, singing among the branches (Psalms 104:11-12). They chant till morning rises, when stars and constellations, the heavens and their hosts all sing praises, as is said: When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of Elohim shouted for joy (Job 38:7). (Matt Translation, Volume 3, 40-41)

As part of this discussion, we will look further into the first volume, which contains a reading of the story of Noah. In the next few weeks, I also hope to publish the first in a series of articles that look at useful works in transformational literature. Stay tuned.

Pleasure and Impermanence

Spiritual practices, like many other activities, can be a gateway to blissful sensations. Descriptions of these sensations appear frequently in religious literature, and helped spark my initial interest. An example of this type of experience is found in Aleister Crowley’s Book Four, where he lays out the foundations for his magical system and explains his own progress in meditation.

Finally something happens whose nature may form the subject of a further discussion later on. For the moment let it suffice to say that this consciousness of the Ego and the non-Ego, the seer and the thing seen, the knower and the thing known, is blotted out.
There is usually an intense light, an intense sound, and a feeling of such overwhelming bliss that the resources of language have been exhausted again and again in the attempt to describe it. (13)

It was hard not to be intrigued by these passages. Making my forays into meditation, I had experiences that more closely resembled heightened sensory states. I did not encounter the bliss that Crowley described here. I continued out of the possibility that these states were only the beginning. I could feel the effect of the practice as time passed, and I began to feel less anxious, more peaceful, and better able to cope with the stress of life.

As I discussed in my previous article, the floodgates truly opened for a brief time of around a month, and I had began to have increasingly pleasurable states. In the midst of everything that was happening they were confusing and disruptive. Even after things had subsided and I returned to my normal routines, something has happened with the practice and I’ve become much more aware of my own approaches to pleasure. These are not limited to meditative bliss. Instead, this change has become all-encompassing.

I’ve found that pleasurable sensations exert a kind of gravity and become bound up with our attitudes of them. In time, these attitudes come to reflect and reinforce them, masquerading as our own opinions and impeding us from changing them. We often repeat these behaviors endlessly, simply for the sake of repeating the behavior and without enjoyment.

Part of our culture is based on nurturing these feelings of anticipation and consumption. When we become addicted, an initial high is experienced and pursued, even though these sensations are ultimately unstable. In another post on awareness and developing meditative focus, we discussed the three marks of existence. In Buddhist terminology, these are defined as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. In examining pleasure and pain, we find these same qualities at work. A pleasurable sensation, for example, comes on, fluctuates across a certain spectrum, then degrades. All sensations are transient, and none can be a foundation.

I think we all realize how unsatisfactory this feels, attempting to pin our expectations on something so liquid. As focus improves, this makes more intuitive sense, and we notice these fluctuations more. There becomes little point to continuous pleasure or pain when they both change into the other. The more we comprehend that this is going on, the more we occupy a fulcrum between denial and excess. Buddhism often talks of a middle way, and this approach enjoys the pleasures of life while not turning them into something destructive and harmful. We are then entwined with a more judicious sense of pleasure.

The instability of pain and pleasure expands our capacity to enjoy beyond what we thought to be able. Rather than narrowly circling a few types of pleasure, once we see their impermanence, we can take increased delight in the broad palette of life’s experiences. Events unfold in their own way, and even what we consider unimportant has its own poetry in its expression. This includes the many small sensations in every day. All of these sensations contribute to the wonder and richness of this life. This is due to not making our usual hard-lined distinctions, which lies waiting in your own mind, ready to be unlocked by continuous awareness.

Heart/Mind Practice

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
– Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Your embodied practice is what separates an actual spirituality from intellectual exercise and speculation. It is the willingness to take risks and embark on turbulent seas towards something we’ve always been but haven’t known.

It is part of an ability to question everything and delve into what we have been taught to be true. Meditation aids us in this. It is a way to observe the body in a vivid and experiential way. Meditation brings up the frameworks, assumptions, and secret pains lying in wait within. Looking at the same tired cycles of behavior makes them seem less pressing; and things we took to be important are eventually seen through.

Meditation is a highly physical way of understanding yourself. Reading books on it and speaking with others are no substitute for it, although these are all important when joined to the practice itself. It would be the difference between reading books on a subject such as the Kabbalah, committing its many abstractions to memory, and climbing the tree of life towards union, seeing its concepts for yourself. Consistently returning to the cushion will convert it into lived experience.

We become better equipped to physically express the insight meditation offers the more we come back to it. Although a distinction between “inner” and “outer” is misleading, we can say that this insight has both an interior and exterior expression. The internal aspect is looking with clarity at ourselves. This is how we understand ourselves in a comprehensive and nuanced way. Our subjectivity is changed by our ability to take on the beneficial or harmful patterns we find. The external is the articulation of that interior choice. Although impulse and thought coalesce in many different ways for us, they may not bleed out into expression until we so choose.

In The Zohar, this choice is split in humans between good and evil. We are capable of great purity and defilement, depending on which position we decide. The harmful patterns we are capable of are expounded on as “the evil impulse” which defines every human since birth.

Rabbi Yehudah opened, ‘For He will command (mal’akhav), His angels, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). This verse has been established: The moment a human being comes into the world, the evil impulse appears along with him, inciting him constantly, as is said: ‘At the opening sin crouches’ (Genesis 4:7) – evil impulse . . . who is called king, ruling over humanity in the world. ‘Old and foolish,’ for he is surely old, as already established, since as soon as a person is born, emerging into the atmosphere, he accompanies that person. So he is ‘an old and foolish king.’
– The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volume 3 Pages 1, 85-86

Seeing through the evil impulse, and how much of it we have in common with others, helps us become more adept at choosing for ourselves. We can learn from other people’s mistakes, fully commit to our own, and make more lucid decisions. Wiser decisions and more compassionate living require time and skill. This gets easier with repetition, and adds another dimension to the meaning of practice. Like any craft, we must throw ourselves in.

Meditation is open to anyone with the time to give it. This is truly an intriguing premise that displays spirituality’s egalitarian nature. In his landmark study Mysticism: Experience, Response, Empowerment, Jess Hollenback claims that what unites mystical traditions is a practice called recollection.

Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.

The great saints of the past have been dedicated men and women who progressed humanity’s self-knowledge. They did so through a more complete understanding of themselves. They had a baseline of recollection which they used to develop that understanding. Our searching of their religious systems helps our own practice grow. What we find is that their religious and mystical insights can be applied by anyone who marries them to their own spiritual practice. This is what separates any artist: giving their methods time and room to grow.

A change in awareness greets those who can make meditative practice part of their lives. As that awareness changes, it reveals our own ability to change in turn. It also opens new doors back to the profound. Ultimately, our practice will be transmitted through everything we do in our lives. Our bodies will become that practice, and we can better compose each new movement, along with the communal truth which defines us all.

 

Of Itself So

From birth to death, it’s just like this!
-Zen Koan

So much of the spiritual path involves trying to escape, to spend ourselves on the rocks of effort, to transcend time and space. We want to escape to a place without sin and where we can live forever. The answer that eludes us lies encased in a journey to the top of an inner mountaintop, filled with dangerous excursions, roaming beasts, and the real potential of insanity. If only we can master instructions provided to us, the veil will finally lift and allow us into the sanctum. Then we will know the secret, or acquire magical powers, or ascend to whatever place we feel we need to get to.

This often begins the start of the religious journey. The false Teacher or Guru may only be too happy to give us what we think we want. Their eyes shine like a shark’s, full of sleek and ancient hunger. They tell us what they’ve discovered and how they can grant it to the elect. Instead, they’ve only scratched the surface of their own obsidian core. In order to fully realize ourselves, we have to look squarely and intensely at our own desires, including the desire for enlightenment. It is this desire which spurs us on, eventually to be undermined as we look at the assumptions that motivate our seeking.

In philosophy, the word immanence is invoked in contrast to the idea of transcendence. Rather than any external, reality manifests through itself. Immanence is reality as it is here, of itself so.

It is difficult to find the right language to describe the relationship between dao and human beings. The dao is not external, so it is not a matter of getting or reaching it, and it is not an object that could be grasped. Since the self-so spontaneity to which dao refers is always present, what is required is a negative process of removing obstacles. Ziran is what remains if we free ourselves from striving and conventional goals. Thus this same process is described as wuwei 無為, which literally means “lacking action” but refers to giving up striving and effort. The Zhuangzi gives another example, the “fasting of the heart/mind” (xinzhai 心齋) that allows us to rely directly on vital energy (qi) and respond spontaneously to whatever appears before us.
– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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A religious teacher worthy of our time will help us explore reality for ourselves. Any claims should be greeted with investigation on our part. It is time we acknowledge that religious teachers are not chosen or above us. They have developed their own unique genius and can show us how to do this too. We merely invest ourselves in them, hoping for an answer even though we all remain in the dark.

The idea of a chosen few is an all too convenient narrative that works at cross purposes with the religious experience. It not only brings up the forces and structures that prevent us from accessing our own liberation. It changes us from constantly seeking something which does not include us, or which we lack and must possess, to dwelling in the thatness which is all things. This feeling is of an incredible span of intelligence which is part of all things and occupies the same ground. This incredibly subtle feeling continues as we meditate, until we find ourselves always “in the hand of the absolute.”

This is a problem with religions that claim we have to absorb baffling and complex ideas. Instead, they point our own reality back at us, “through a speculum that shines.” Seeing this completely has little to do with the opinions of others, let alone our own. How could the multiplicity of perspective, feeling, and the beyond be limited to the thoughts of our stinking skin bag?

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form . . . What has been called ‘forms as they are‘ is not a single form, and form as it is is not a uniform reality as it is: it is countless, boundless, inexhaustible, and unfathomable reality as it is.
– Eihei Dogen, Shoho-Jisso (69)

This is not an answer that can be taken by force, but attuned to closely as it is given freely. It is also not an answer that we can look to as separate from anything we do. We can see everything, let it unfold, and realize that unfolding. The moment is inextricable with all that you are. Look to it, and its profundity, as the ground from which you spring, like a tree erupting forth from space itself. It is just like this, the mysterious Dao, the powers of chopping wood and carrying water that no one understands.

Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna

 

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When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.

Re/activity

One of the keystones of meditative practice is an awareness of our habitual, encoded behaviors. These habits remain enshrouded in our past until we pay attention to the influence they exert on our lives. Although pervasive, there remain important openings through these kind of influences, including meditation. Once we become increasingly aware of ourselves, our meditative practice can truly take root.

One of the first openings I experienced in meditation was perceiving the continuous loop of thought. Without any intervention on our part, thought continuously propagates itself. The mind frequently calculates, fantasizes, and attempts to gain advantage. Thought has both verbal and physical components for us, which tend to follow and merge into one another. They influence and reinforce each other in countless ways. This means that thoughts arise out of emotion, expressing the content of those feelings, and vice versa. If we leave our thought alone, it tends to engage with itself instead.

Once I understood this more concretely, I noticed thoughts that budded off of other thoughts, establishing a separate internal dialogue. That dialogue was integrated with a desired self-image.  A negative thought was quickly countered with a positive one. This created a strange dissonance, as both thoughts were equally valid but I attempted to identify with one more strongly than the other as “myself.” The less desirable thoughts were encapsulated out. As my body reflected on itself, it attempted to establish a bulwark against any perceived negativity. That negativity was tied to some of my deepest fears and anxieties.

This internal dividing line we create is completely arbitrary. That was surprising, since I viewed my thoughts as produced by a self, and that those thoughts reflected who I really was.  Watching thoughts merely arise, expend themselves, and disappear on their own helped cause a complete restructuring of my understanding.

Both of these experiences began to loosen the hold that these sensations had. We tend to perceive these thoughts and sensations in sequential patterns, and then extrapolate from that perceived regularity. This pattern recognition helps our bodies make sense of how we describe ourselves to others and in our thoughts. We also do this with other people, and part of the social dialogue is an ascribing of attributes to others in the community. We circumscribe people with this image, which tends to narrow our focus and causes us to react accordingly.  Reacting to people as an abstraction is problematic, and we discard people’s (and our own) deep spontaneity.

Instead of merely taking whatever arises and engaging with it unquestioningly, we learn to sit with everything. Although this is a start to a long journey, this basic insight remains a crux of meditative practice. It allows us to see our tendencies and act against our own grain. Since we have learned how to sit with everything that comes up in our meditation sessions, we do not have to establish any kind of internal or external dividing line. We can see through these as needed. On a more integrated level, we are able to focus, pull back, and learn what these feelings reveal.

Knowing how the mind structures itself is part of understanding the human experience. With frequent meditation, we can displace our reactivity out of any given situation. Our reactivity is often simply a part of our own desire to be right and our habitual patterns of thinking. In letting these drop, we can listen with our whole body to what is being expressed. That often reveals a more beneficial path for ourselves and others. And when we see through our reactivity, we come much closer to an authentic compassion. Seeing the ways that we all become lost in our programming fashions us that much closer together.

Noticing this connective tissue with others allows us to see things in a much clearer light. Finding ways out of blind reactivity is something we can offer all beings, and show them different paths to take within themselves.

The Collective, The Expanse, and the Imagination of Earth

Welcome to the churn.
– The Expanse

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In the introduction to #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian state:

Such convenient extremist caricatures, however, obstruct the consideration of a diverse set of ideas united in a claim that a truly progressive political thought – a thought that is not beholden to inherited authority, ideology, or institutions – is possible only by way of a future-oriented and realist philosophy; and that only a politics constructed on this basis can open up new perspectives on the human project, and on social and political adventures yet to come. This assumption that we are at the beginning of a political project, rather than at the bleak terminus of history, seems crucial today in order to avoid endemic social depression and lowering of expectations in the face of global cultural homogenization, climate change and ongoing financial crisis . . . The new possibilities it opens up for the human conceived not as an eternal given, fated to suffer the vicissitudes of nature, but as a historical being whose relation to nature (including its own), increasingly mediated through technical means, is mutable and in motion. [4-11]

In light of the challenges that humanity faces, it is beginning to transition further away from archaic, all-encompassing ideas. Conceiving of new paradigms is a challenge to orthodox ways of imagining the world. Books such as Inventing the Future (linked to #Accelerate) take up this challenge and attempt a reversal. In this book, the authors argue for building a liberal hegemony, instead of the current Left’s retreat into what they describe as “folk politics.” These political methods use local models of self-sufficiency and resilience but fail to account for capitalism’s larger networks. The liberal hegemony this book describes embraces technology as a means to make cultures that are “utopian without apology.”

We have entered a space that resists our more limited descriptions of reality. Part of humanity’s current project is to create new conceptions of self and the world. This project is tied to our inner work. Both need us to be brutally honest with ourselves if we are to create realistic change. Through sitting, we exhume more and more of our experience that is shared with others: aggressive thoughts and impulses, overriding selfishness, and the nadir of human experience which is our birthright. Humanity will need to take stock of it’s own tendencies toward aggression and violence in order to shift its cultures to more beneficial ends. Past lessons on corruption, power, and environmental disintegration will hopefully serve us well as we make these changes.

These lessons are a necessary part of humanity’s journey, both individually and collectively. In St. John of the Cross’ book The Dark Night, he describes the process of mystical purgation and union with God. In order for the aspirant to realize this, they must be tried in the fires of contemplation. He brilliantly describes this process:

Similarly, we should philosophize about this divine, loving fire of contemplation. Before transforming the soul, it purges it of all contrary qualities . . . [it] brings to the fore the soul’s ugliness; thus one seems worse than before and unsightly and abominable. This divine purge stirs up all the the foul and vicious humors of which the soul was never before aware; never did it realize there was so much evil in itself, since these humors were so deeply rooted. And now that they may be expelled and annihilated they are brought to light and seen clearly through the illumination of this dark light of divine contemplation. [417]

Here St. John is describing something that religious teachers and mystics have long been aware of: the transformation inherent in meditation. Contemplation, observation, and meditation are all part of spiritual praxis. By undertaking these practices, you will begin to discover different ways of perceiving. Observing oneself is a gateway, for in knowing ourselves we can act in ways that are less clouded by conditioning. Through these practices, we can better change our understanding as well as the world at large.

This enlarging of understanding ourselves is often reflected in popular culture. After finishing the first season of the TV show The Expanse, I am amazed at how well the show conceives of new offshoots of the human experience. It allows us to rethink how humanity is leaving the confines of adolescence for the open spaces of its adulthood. Through cultural artifacts like The Expanse, we are better understanding the power of human ingenuity and imagination. Currently, I think humanity is edging closer to removing the barriers of its past. As we leave old mythologies behind, we become more capable of engineering the planet, and possibly, any worlds beyond. This dissolution is painful and frightening, like the dark night, as we begin to build an understanding that can better accommodate our freedom.

This kind of understanding starts within us. Instead of existing on a higher plane, it instead sprouts up out of the earth through us. It is saturating our world with increasing awareness. In doing the work to understand ourselves, we can realize and accelerate the Great Work of humanity: knowing and increasing our collective ability to shape the world

God In the Limitless

One of the main questions that I had when I became involved in meditative practice was: what is truth? Many of the books I had read involved the author’s questioning of truth, and their eventual discovery of an answer that satisfied them. I had reached a point in my life where old patterns no longer served. They had once promised new perspectives and fresh ideas, but had turned desolate in the process. I could see that there was no longer anything for me down those roads. I took up meditation as a way of striking out along an unfamiliar path, grasping at possible answers to questions I wasn’t even aware that I had. A desire to know seemed to permeate every cell, and the practice seemed to catalyze itself further than I could have imagined.

As the practice evolved, other questions arose that seemed equally important. Since meditation gives us an additional perspective on religious writing and symbolism, books looking at the question of God took on further meaning for me. They began to resonate more, provoking feelings that I feel are very much in tune with religious experiences throughout human history.

For me, the experience of God is very closely tied to our own experience. Since meditation often encourages us to look closer at our own reality, it is connected in a meaningful way with the experience of God. We use words like “everyday” experience as if that experience is somehow ordinary, instead of deeply strange and mysterious. A glance at our own experience yields something impossibly deep.

As a simple example for contemplation, look at the skin of your own hand. See each individual cell forming larger patterns and their uniqueness from each other. Notice the cells and hairs making up your limbs and the veins coursing down them. Keep going, noting the pulsations of breath, the feeling of the diaphragm expanding and contracting, and every detail of your vision now coming into focus. Keep going farther outward, noticing as much as possible. You are one part of the universe but an incredibly complex one, and it is just the beginning.

One can do this on any level: the hidden ecosystems within the ground, the shifting appearance of water on a lake, the waves of light across a field, and the varied expressions on other human faces in conversation. These all merge into each other, generating even more complexity. You can keep doing this until it clarifies the singular nature of this “ordinary” experience we so often take for granted.

What is the basis for this? All explanations in this regard seem to fall short for me. Any explanation, whether scientific, spiritual, and so on, seem to miss the point: the mystery of existence. Why should any explanation exist at all?

Who or what is the eye? The eyes that look out into clear sky and that fathom the depths are an eye emerging out of mysterious reality. The organism that is you grows out of universal processes so complex they have yet to be fully understood. It senses and feels, growing through the layers of reality, taking a breath from outside the womb, somehow conceiving “I am me.”

It seems as if all our actions enter into a contingent, diverse, and dynamic reality. Your own thoughts, fears, neuroses, hatreds, and the richness of your human experience all emerge out of this existence. I think that reality is what words such as God are trying to indicate to us. We cannot get too caught up on establishing an eternal definition of God. When you try to conceptualize God, you try to limit it. Instead, it seems that God pushes and pulls at itself, generating and inhabiting spaces; moving away from arbitrary definitions.

To honor God is to appreciate our place in that vastness. It is to sense the wonder of existence and to make the most of this unique, improbable opportunity. It is to know that our own movements contribute to the shape of “the world that is coming.” And that movement is joined to something much larger than what we feel to be ourselves. Perhaps your life is the life of God and of the universe.

Creative Experimentation and the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Thought is a ‘witches’ flight’ in the sense of carrying us to beyond the frontier of what the body and the mind have been presumed able to do.
– Joshua Ramsey

A book I am currently working on is called Hands-On Chaos Magic by Andrieh Vitimus. Throughout the sections I’ve read, the author lists many exercises that develop visualization and concentration skills. The book uses these examples to encourage an open source approach to its exercises, inviting the reader’s participation in making their own magical frameworks. It has us adopt a questioning attitude and develop exercises that are effective and have meaning to us.

This book feels like a natural extension of developing individual, creative approaches. Interestingly, I think this kind of experimentation prevents its practitioners from too narrowly channeling their creativity. Rather than focusing all of our efforts on a particular form of art, any circumstance becomes creative. We become a kind of craftsman, but for all of life, and through a kind of inquisitive play with existence, new solutions emerge. Although there is much that is outside of our control, we can experiment in every moment. By nurturing the details of our lives, we find novel and often beautiful possibilities.

This kind of free play is present in the work of some of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They carve out the still-beating heart of the Entrenched Position, giving it over to the cascades ever in the process of desiring-production. Deleuze and Guattari provide us with concepts that allow us to think differently, shifting away from a blind insistence on our possession of Truth. Their concepts, collected under terms like schizoanalysis, provide a pivot for creative experimentation and expansion in our own lives.

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I will try to focus on some important concepts from their studies in A Thousand Plateaus. By observing how these concepts relate to each other, we can then grasp what Deleuze and Guattari are offering us when we work to understand it. They give us a truly rare and wonderful thing. Not only is their conceptual system coherent, it also adheres to lived experience. By being highly realistic, and not necessarily idealistic, its range of practical applications is enormous.

Two of Deleuze and Guattari’s most useful concepts are the rhizome and the assemblage. The rhizome offers a model for connections within reality between what are referred to as heterogeneous elements. These can be understood as aspects that occupy a network of connections that constantly fluctuate, connect, and re-connect. In A Thousand Plateaus, it is described as “[passing] between things, between points.” [505]. In its process of connection, the rhizome creates new realities of its own.

The assemblage expands upon this, offering us a way to understand provisional collections of these heterogeneous elements. An assemblage:

[extracts] a territory from the milieus. Every assemblage is basically territorial. The first concrete rules for assemblages is to discover what territoriality they envelop, for there is always one: in their trash can or on their bench, Beckett’s characters stake out a territory. Discover the territorial assemblages of someone, human or animal: ‘home.’ The territory is made out of decoded fragments of all kinds, which are borrowed from the milieus but then assume the value of ‘properties’ . . . [504]

The environment organizes itself in particular ways, pulling itself together into coherent groups that make an assemblage. Depending on how these differences are brought together changes the territory and therefore the assemblage. This process of constitution is elaborated on with Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of territorialization and deterritorialization.

These territories have certain exit points within them to other states of being and intensity, called lines of flight. Since the territory occupies a certain level of organization, when we change how that matter organizes, we begin moving along these lines towards deterritorialization. These are transitions that embrace the fount of possibility and our ability to move along different paths at any time. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari describe two different parts of this process. The first is when we move outside of a territory but “reterritorialize” on a different one. The second is when we reach the “plane of consistency,” an extremely abstract and difficult concept to describe. The plane of consistency underlies all universal order and allows it to exist, but it is more fluid and potential. If we transition from more rigid conceptions of order, we can reach the plane of consistency and find more creative freedom.

I think this understanding helps shed light on human habits. For example, we tend to move in default patterns of thought, behavior, and organization. This can be conceived as a territory. It is a particular state of energy that we occupy at any given time, with tendencies to move in certain directions, whether intellectual, verbal, etc. This can be observed in children, with a more chaotic creativity limiting itself over time to the construction of a personality. However, this cuts both ways, and we can follow our personality back across time, along the paths of its formation, and sense its limitations. This is to realize our freedom. It is helpful, once we recognize that incredible freedom, to understand the balance of crafting and dissolving transitions along the flux of events. Our territories contain “lines of flight” that describe other possible states of becoming and how we may best follow them.

These ideas all tie into the concept of a body without organs. A body without organs is a process of reality in becoming, of how we each give shape to a life’s work. As I understand it, the body without organs is how each of us shape actualities in accordance with our deepest desires in ongoing experiment. It “pulls” potentials into existence. Set in motion, the body without organs constructs itself through the events of our lives. Since reality is processual, it necessarily follows that any moment we express opens onto multiple dimensions, including the full scale of heavenly bliss and hellacious suffering. The body without organs teems with possibility and danger, that we may not survive beyond this moment to carry on this grand experiment.

At any rate you have one (or several). It’s not so much that it preexists or comes ready-made, although in certain respects it is preexistent. At any rate you make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t. This is not reassuring, because you can botch it. Or it can be terrifying, and lead you to your death. It is nondesire as well as desire. It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. [149-150]

Understanding these concepts clarifies Deleuze and Guattari’s purpose.  These concepts are not held in a death grip.  Instead, they energize and reconnect language from within, allowing us to conceive and feel other dimensions of existence. Their writing mirrors this, teeming with the associations, loops, and spirals of life. We can observe new connections forming and see what can be drawn from them. We then enter and better effectuate processes of change. An application of this philosophy is how best to use this framework to liberate ourselves. Through it, we continuously work to realize a much broader and diverse experience of life, a “nomad science” and philosophy of freedom.

Let There Be An Expanse: The Cosmology of the Zohar’s Parashat Be-Reshit

This is a continuation of this website’s series on the Zohar. For the first part of this series, click here.  This commentary used the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, Volume One by Daniel Matt.

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Parashat Be-reshit is a passionate reading of the Book of Genesis. Through its passages it follows the deluge of emanation back into the infinite. Seeking this universal corona is described in the Zohar as “a journey on concealed paths.”

The beginning of the cosmos woke within Ein Sof, the endless. To emphasize the non-conceptual nature of Ein Sof, words are invoked and just as quickly discarded. Like a mountain disappearing into the clouds, our landmarks collapse and withdraw into singularity.  The Zohar takes the reader on an odyssey back to the birth of existence as it gives way to its own expansion:

At the head of potency of the King, He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed, from the head of Infinity – a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a cord surveyed, it yielded radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed with the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit, Beginning, first command of all . . . Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: ‘Her stock of seed is holiness’ (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! [Radiance!] Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk, wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all. (107-110)

The Zohar does not shy away from drawing provocative conclusions from its interpretations of Torah. As it continues, it gives the reader a unique rendering of the sentence Be-reshit bara Elohim. The sentence is turned into an opaque treatise on emergence. It is often translated as, “In the beginning, God created.” In the Zohar, God’s origin stands out as a lacuna in that sentence, referring back to Ein Sof, “the unknown concealed one.” This gives an inspired twist to the sentence’s meaning:

With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. This palace is called Elohim, ‘God.’ The secret is, Ba-reshit bara Elohim, ‘With beginning, ______ created God’ (Genesis 1:1).

This universal history, sketched out in Be-Reshit, is contained within the iconic map of the Sephirot.

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The Sephirot are key to understanding Kabbalah in many ways. One level of interpretation describes the characteristics of God as He manifested. These are the qualities of will, wisdom, understanding, and so on. The first three Sephirot are the beginning of this dilation. Out of Ein Sof comes Keter, the will, transitioning into Hokmah. Hokmah is a point of light, the beginning act that moves on to fertilize Binah, creating the palace of the world. The imagery utilized in these descriptions is of the two Sephirot of Hokmah and Binah uniting in a current of energy. Binah then becomes the womb of all forms:

The primordial point is inner radiance – there is no way to gauge its translucency, tenacity, or purity until an expanse expanded from it. The expansion of of that point became a palace, in which the point was clothed – a radiance unknowable, so intense its lucency. This palace, a garment for that concealed point, is a radiance beyond measure, yet not as gossamer or translucent as the primordial point, hidden and treasured. That palace expanded an expanse: primordial light. That expansion of primordial light is a garment for the palace, which is a gossamer, translucent radiance, deeper within. From here on, this expands into this, this is clothed in this, so that this is a garment for this, and this for this. This the kernel; this the shell. Although a garment, it becomes the kernel of another layer . . . All for the arrayal of the world, and so the world is. (152).

After Binah followed Hesed, “Love,” which then fragmented into darkness. The Zohar does not retreat from is its inspection and elucidation of evil in the world, which is represented by the left column of the Sephirot, and referred to as the Other Side. Evil is found on “the Countenance of Days” in a complex and subtle sense. Evil twisted apart from the unity at the beginning of creation as a destructive force.

Good and evil are bound together as the right and left hand of God. The radical nature of this is that evil is not separate from the divine. Instead, the Zohar reveals how darkness is another name of God:

‘Darkness’ – upon it rests the name Elohim . . . Here is mystery in detail, separating upper waters from lower through mystery of the left. Here conflict was created through the left side. For until here was mystery of the right, and here is mystery of the left, so conflict raged between this and the right. Right is consummate of all, so all is written by the right, for upon it depends all consummation. When the left aroused, conflict aroused, and through that conflict blazed the fire of wrath. Out of that conflict aroused by the left, emerged Hell. Hell aroused on the left and clung. The wisdom of Moses: he contemplated this, gazing into the act of Creation. In the act of Creation a conflict aroused between left and right, and in that conflict aroused by the left, Hell emerged, clinging there. The central pillar, who is the third day, entered between them, mediating the conflict, reconciling the two sides. Hell descended, left merged in right, and peace prevailed over all. (127-131).

God absorbed good and evil within itself, creating Tif’eret, “beauty,” “compassion,” or “heaven.” In the same way that good and evil are enjoined, the initial separation allowed for reconciliation. Without separation, there could be no mending. The Other Side remained, its forces responsible for punishing sin, then called Gevurah or “judgment.” Tif’eret combined the other Sephirot’s energy, moving down into Yesod, the Vitality of the Worlds, which feeds our level of existence. The world we inhabit is called Malkhut, or “kingdom,” and is depicted using the feminine symbol of Shekinah. Shekinah is the bride, with the Kabbalist as the bridgegroom.  Human sin has dislocated Shekinah, diminishing the flow of energy to Malkuth. The Kabbalist blends with Shekinah to reconnect the male and female God.

The world trembles in the thrall of judgment. Demons now lie over the altar in a broken temple, their numbers growing into widespread contagion.

One monster below, on the left side, swims through all those rivers. He approaches the side, all his scales iron-hard, stretches to suck, and defiles the site. All lights darken before him. His mouth and tongue flame with fire, his tongue sharp as a steely sword, till he penetrates the sanctuary within the sea. Then the sanctuary is desecrated, lights extinguished, supernal lights ascend from the sea. The waters of the sea split on the left side, and the sea conceals, its waters flowing no more. So the mystery of the word is as written: ‘Now the serpent was slier than any creature of the field that YHVH Elohim had made (Genesis 3:1) – mystery of the evil serpent descending from above, skimming the surface of bitter waters, seducing below till they fall into his nets. This serpent is death of the world, penetrating a person’s blind gut. He is on the left, while another, of life, is on the right, both accompanying each human, as they have established. ‘Than any creature of the field.’ For no other creature of the field is as cunning in perpetrating evil, for his is the dross of gold. Woe to one drawn to him, for he inflicts death upon him and upon all those following him! This they have established. Adam was drawn down toward him, descending to know everything below. As he descended, his will and ways were drawn toward them, until they reached that serpent, discovering worldly desire, straying at that site. Then he rose, drawn toward Adam and his wife, clung to them, inflicted death upon them and all subsequent generations. Until Israel arrived at Mount Sinai, his slime never ceased infecting the world, as has been explained. (288-289)

This reconciliation is also reflected in the Adam and Eve creation story. Since humanity mirrors God, separation is found in us as well. Love and unity fall into evil and sin, only to be redeemed in the light of heaven, found in the heart by uniting what has been cast down.

The Zohar depicts Adam and Eve in the bliss of the garden, culminating in eating the fruit of knowledge. In this reading, Adam and Eve simultaneously absorbed the knowledge of good and evil, becoming like God in the process. Among the roots of the Tree of Life, Adam grasped his own mortality and a world that “embraces all” its accompanying shadow. At the same time Adam became aware of good, then evil presented itself to him:

The blessed Holy One ate from this tree and then created the world . . . Eat from it and you will be creating worlds! So, ‘God knows that on the day you eat from it [your eyes will be opened and you will become like God . . . ]’ (ibid., 5). Because He knows this, He commanded you concerning it . . . Certainly all touched upon this tree, by which they are embraced. Whoever takes it by itself, takes it together with hordes below embraced by it, takes idolatry, murder, and exposing nudity . . . So in them all he was commanded concerning this tree. When he ate from it, he violated them all, for it embraces all . . . ‘The eyes of both of them were opened’ (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Hiyya said, ‘Opened to perceive the evil of the world, unknown to them till now. Once they knew and were open to knowing evil, then ‘they knew that they were naked (ibid.), for they had lost the supernal radiance enveloping them, which disappeared, leaving them ‘naked.’ (225-229)

In pursuing sin, Adam allowed evil to fracture the world, bringing death and judgment to bear.  The Zohar reads this as Adam expelling God, instantly remapping the Tree of Life and removing Shekinah from the Sephirot. The separation that Adam enacts in himself is transferred upwards through the Sephriot as well.

Come and see: When Adam sinned by eating from the tree, he transmogrified that tree into a universal source of death; he caused a defect, separating the Woman from Her Husband. The fault of this defect stood out in the moon, until Israel stood at Mount Sinai, when that defect disappeared from the moon, enabling her to constantly shine. Once Israel sinned with the calf, She relapsed into defectiveness; the evil serpent prevailed and seized Her, dragging Her to him. (294)

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created a new level of understanding for Adam and Eve. In Eden, Adam and Eve are not really free, as they are unable to choose for themselves between good and evil. Since they chose materiality, they removed themselves from the oceanic unity of the garden. This distances the spiritual further from everyday life and helps to articulate evil in the world.

This evil may take the form of an extreme self-centeredness. This selfishness is all too often realized at the expense of others. Ultimately these actions are a bitter salve for our feelings of separation. This separation has its roots in human development, for as we become older we tend to acquire habits, desires, experiences, and propensities to act. These become codified into a self-image which we feel is separate from others. The pursuit of our imagined self’s desires exacerbates this separation, entrenching us in a cycles of dissatisfaction. However, a way out of these cycles remains.  The same action that creates our separateness can show us a way out as our awareness increases.

Both perceptions lay inside reality – self-centeredness and separation, and a cosmic, life-giving expansion. Both these paths exist inside of the human soul as well. Through evil, we understand the full range of our ability to shape cause and effect.

Interestingly, this conception has parallels to the phrase “the kingdom of God is within you.” As we journey along the Sephirotic path in ourselves, we encounter occluded knowledge, rising up like disparate and unknown lands. “Heaven” is the beauty of our fractured, contradictory existence, and of realizing these contradictions within us. Consciously striving for the good cause Heaven and Kingdom to join together.  In order to discover this, we have to take the plunge into the evil that shields love, sifting through our ever-present potential for sin.

It seems that the world continually remakes and goes beyond itself. The world is free, and humans have the privilege of remaking the Tree of Life.  Enlightened individuals recognize this, and see the light of creation in every existent thing. In the Zohar’s conception, these individuals hold up the pavilion of Shekinah. They are caretakers that work to heal what humanity has torn asunder. Moving outside of the self-centeredness that many humans take for granted, they aid the world in all its forms. They are “the mending of the moon,” restoring Shekinah through beneficial action. As they meld with her, they harmonize the full span of the Sephirot.

The enlightened will shine like the radiance of the sky – these are pillars and sockets of that pavilion. The enlightened – supernal pillars and sockets, contemplating in wisdom everything needed by that pavilion and its supports. This mystery accords with what is said: ‘Happy is one who considers, the poor’ (Psalms 41:2). ‘Will shine’ – for unless they shine and radiate, they cannot contemplate that pavilion, looking out for all it needs. ‘Like the radiance, of the sky’ – standing above ‘the enlightened,’ of whom is written: ‘An image above the heads of the living being, a sky like awesome ice’ (Ezekiel 1:22). ‘Radiance’ – illumining Torah. ‘Radiance’ – illumining the ‘heads of that living being. Those ‘heads’ are the ‘enlightened,’ who constantly radiate and shine, contemplating that ‘sky,’ the radiance flashing from there, radiance of Torah, sparkling constantly, never ceasing. (117-118).

For they constitute the mending of the moon.’ (168)

The Zohar’s radiant words show us to wholeness, and in exploring it, we find our participation in God. Let there be an expanse, above and below, to fuse all into unity. May there be good and evil, so that humanity can know them both, and be free. And let those who see this become like Tif’eret, guiding others back to the paths of judgment and compassion.