Flashback Friday: Cabala, Tasting The Forbidden Fruit Of The Tree Of Life

Fountainhead of Western mysticism, the Cabala is an intricate maze of symbols and rituals assembled by certain European Jews back in the Middle Ages.
Flashback Friday: Cabala, Tasting The Forbidden Fruit Of The Tree Of Life
Chris Spollen/ High Times

In the July, 1981 issue of High Times, Robert Anton Wilson, famed writer of the “Illuminatus” trilogy, leads us through a labyrinth of esoterica with his customary wit and style.

There’s a tale they tell at Military Intelligence in London, when the candles gutter low and the fog curls about the windows. It happened in 1914 (they say), when England was losing the first world war and it seemed only a miracle could save her. There was this writer bloke (they say), name of Arthur Machen, never popular or well known, a bloody Welshman in fact and a mystic to boot. Well (they say), this Welshman, this Machen, took it into his head to write a story about the kind of miracle England needed, so he imagined St. George himself leading a group of medieval archers to aid the English troops at Mons. And after the story was published in a magazine, some enterprising newspapers picked it up and reprinted it as fact. And (they say) the whole damned country was gullible enough to believe it. It did as much for national morale as the real miracle would have.

What is even weirder is the sequel—and the chaps at Military Intelligence only discuss this when the candles gutter quite low and the fog is very thick, of course. Soldiers at the front, in Mons, began claiming that they had actually seen the phantom archers created out of Machen’s imagination. They insisted on it. Some of them were still insisting on it 40 years later. They said they had won the battle because of this supernatural assistance.

Fair gives you a turn, doesn’t it?

Stranger still: Machen, the man with the contagious imagination, was a member of a secret society in London. This was known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and it claimed to know the long-hidden secrets of Cabalistic magic.

There were several other members of the Golden Dawn who made a bit of a name. Florence Farr, one of the great actresses of the period, was a member, and it was she who gave Bernard Shaw the ideas about life-energy and longevity dramatized in Back to Methuselah; those ideas are currently influencing life-extension research. Algernon Blackwood and Bram Stoker (Dracula’s creator) were members; so was the coroner of London; so was an electrical engineer named Alan Bennett who later, as Ananda Maitreya, played a key role in introducing Buddhist ideas to the West.

The egregious Aleister Crowley, who claimed to have come to earth to destroy Christianity, was a member for a while, and I know a good World War I story about him, too. It was Crowley’s habit to give his pupils a word to meditate on every year. In 1918, Crowley gave them a number instead of a word: 11. All year his pupils meditated on 11 for at least a half hour every day… And the war ended on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Did you feel another queer flash then?

The most famous Golden Dawn alumnus, however, was the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. In 1894 Yeats predicted that “the right pupils will be drawn to (the Golden Dawn) by dreams and visions and strange accidents…”

Cabala, the working philosophy behind the Golden Dawn, is the science of “strange accidents”—which are known as “mere coincidences” to the rationalist or “synchronicities” to Jungian psychologists.

Cabala (also spelled Qabala or Kaballah) was either taught by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden, according to its own tradition, or was invented by a group of rabbis c. A.D. 200 as a means of transmitting the esoteric inner teachings of Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem and the Dispersion. Among the prominent medieval and Renaissance philosophers who were Cabalists one can mention Raymond Lull, Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno, Dr. John Dee, Pico della Mirandola and Isaac Newton. Cabala became unfashionable in the 18th century and did not begin to make a comeback until the Brain Explosion of the 1960s—the drug culture, the consciousness movement, the importation of Oriental mind-sciences, the popularity of Jung and Leary and Castaneda.

One way to get into the Cabalistic head space is to reflect long and hard on the singular fact that we could not live—could not breathe, in fact—without the trees busily pumping oxygen into the air. Yet the trees are not “thinking” about producing life-support for us. To the rationalist, it seems that our need for oxygen has no real connection with the trees’ production of that element; sheer chance (or, the more vehement rationalists will anthropomorphically say, “blind chance”) happens to have produced trees, through natural selection, over many aeons. The fact that we exist is, to this philosophy, a total accident, a very strange coincidence.

And, to the same rationalist, Arthur Machen’s imagination has no real connection with what was happening on the battlefield at Mons. The magical link between Machen’s imagination and the “collective hallucination” of the soldiers is just coincidence—like the magical link between us and the trees.

To the Cabalist, the rationalist sounds like a man found in a closet by a jealous husband, who hopefully explains, “Just by coincidence, while you were away on business I happened to wander into this closet without my clothes on…”

To the Cabalist, the whole universe is a network of meaningful connections. The seemingly coincidental is as full of meaning as anything else. To begin thinking like a Cabalist you must regard everything as being just as important as everything else. All that seems “accidental,” “meaningless,” “chaotic,” “weird,” “nonsensical,” et cetera is as significant as what seems lawful, orderly and comprehensible.

An elementary Cabalistic training technique is to try every day to “regard every incident and event as a direct communication between God and your soul.” Even the license plates on passing cars are such communications—or can be considered as such—by the devout Cabalist.

Some will be thinking of Freud at this point; and indeed Nathan Fodor points out in Freud, Jung and the Occult that Freud was heavily influenced by a friend who was a Cabalist. The “dreams, visions and strange accidents” that Yeats thought would bring people into the ambience of the Golden Dawn are all Freudian “unconscious material.”

A more modern metaphor is to be found in current neurology which points out that the brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left hemisphere is where we do most of our conscious thinking, and it is linear, it breaks things down into sequences of A-causes-B, B-causes-C, and so forth. The right hemisphere, on the contrary, thinks in gestalt—meaningful wholes, comprehensive systems.

Cabala, like dope, is a deliberate attempt to overthrow the linear left brain and allow the contents of the holistic right brain to flood the field of consciousness. When you are walking down the street and every license plate seems part of one continuous message—one endless narrative—you are thinking like a very advanced theoretical Cabalist. (Or else you’re stoned out of your gourd.)

Practical Cabala (or Cabalistic magic) is the art of utilizing such holistic perception to create effects that will seem like “strange accidents” to the non-Cabalist.

A legendary example concerns an incident when the king of Poland was being urged by his advisers to authorize a pogrom against the Jews. One old Hasidic rabbi—and the Hasidic rabbis spend most of their time studying Cabala—sat down, on hearing of this, and pretended to be writing something; but he did not write. Instead, he deliberately knocked his bottle over three times. His students, who saw this, thought the old man was getting a bit funny in the head. Then, a few days later, came news from the capital: The king had tried to sign the order for the pogrom three times, and each time he had—by “strange accident”—knocked over his ink bottle. “I can’t sign this,” the king finally exclaimed. “God is against it!”

Every oriental culture has some equivalent to Cabala—some neuroscience of meditations, visualizations and yogic contortions calculated to shift consciousness, or part of consciousness, from the usually overactive left hemisphere to the usually underactive right hemisphere. Cabala differs from all these Oriental disciplines in being as systematic as any natural science—although far weirder.

The system of Cabala is contained in a kind of ontological periodic table of elements (see illustration above). The purpose of this diagram has been nicely defined by the eminent contemporary Cabalist (and Jungian psychologist) Dr. Israel Regardie, who describes it as “a mnemonic system of psychology… to train the Will and Imagination.”

The tree, as you can see, is made up of ten circles, called lights, and 22 paths connecting the lights. Each light represents a separate level of consciousness, and hence a separate level of “reality.” That is, to the Cabalist, each perceived reality is a function of the level of consciousness which perceives it, and how much reality you can absorb depends on how rich your consciousness is.

The paths, which are more technical than the lights, are techniques for getting from one light (one level of awareness) to another.

The aim of the Cabala is to always know which “light” you are in, which is the level of consciousness that is creating what you are perceiving; and then to know the paths, or tricks, to get from one light (perceived reality) to another.

Dion Fortune, a Cabalist who also practiced psychoanalysis under her birth name, Violet Wirth, sums it all up by saying Cabala is “the art of causing change in consciousness by act of will.”

The Tree of Life may be regarded as a map of those parts of consciousness which (a) are active in everybody—the lower parts of the tree; and (b) those which are only active in various orders of adepts—the higher parts of the tree.

The pragmatic theory of Cabala is that each action creates a new “universe,” each experiment creates a new experimenter, each dance creates a new dancer. We are growing and evolving all the time, without noticing it usually; but at certain crucial points we can make a mental quantum jump to a level of awareness that puts us in a new reality we have never noticed before. Each of the lights on the Tree of Life represents such a quantum jump.

Flashback Friday: Cabala, Tasting The Forbidden Fruit Of The Tree Of Life
High Times

Concretely, we all start out in Malkuth, at the bottom of the tree, which represents the lowest level of awareness. This is what Freud called the oral stage: We simply drift and wait to be fed. Alcoholics, opiate addicts and most of the people on welfare for “psychological” reasons represent this state in its pure form, but we all contain it and relapse into it under sufficient stress. “I can’t cope; somebody come help me.” Hear the infant’s shrill cry “Maaa-Maaa!” and you know what Malkuth is all about.

Above this is Yesod, the area of strong ego-awareness and what Gurdjieff called conscious suffering. This is where you struggle to be a real mensch, to be honorable, responsible, and self-sufficient. If you never get beyond this, you become what doctors called Type A and are a good bet for an early heart attack.

There are two ways to transcend Yesod’s struggles. One takes you to Hod, which can be called the tactic of the rationalist (Dr. Carl Sagan will serve as a model for this), and the other to Netzach, which is the strategy of the ordinary religionist (Jerry Falwell, say).

According to Cabala, both the rationalist and the vulgar religionist are unbalanced; in modern neurological language, the rationalist leans too much on the left brain and the religionist too much on the right brain. The synthesis, or balancing, brings you to the Middle Pillar and is represented by the light called Tiphareth—which charmingly enough means “beauty” in English.

Looking at the tree, you can see that the rationalist has a different path to Tiphareth from that of the religionist. The rationalist must go the path of nun (“fish”) and the religionist the path of ayin (“eye”). Any book on Cabala will tell you what nun and ayin imply in terms of the psychological transformation involved. Fortunately the tarot cards were either created or revised by a Cabalist and the meanings of nun and ayin are vividly conveyed to the unconscious by the two cards called, respectively, Death and the Devil. Anybody with even a rudimentary knowledge of psychology can grasp part of what is meant here—the rationalist must “make friends with” Death and the religionist with the Devil. This is what Jung means when he says each man must face his own shadow.

(Every path on the tree has a tarot card illustrating it, and the quickest way to make the tree clear to your unconscious is to lay out the cards representing the paths between each light. The next step is to redesign the cards in terms of your own understanding. Some Cabalists redesign the tarot every two or three years, as their understanding grows.)

Tiphareth, the balanced center between and above both rationalism and religion, means beauty, as we said above. It is the first light that does not appear in normal, statistically average consciousness, and is identified with everything we mean by rebirth or awakening. It is dhyana in the Hindu system, “Buddha-mind” in Buddhism, the “New Adam” in St. Paul’s epistles, Cosmic Christ Consciousness to Christian Cabalists. It represents a total reorganization of the psyche for a higher level of functioning than most humans ever attain. When Dr. Timothy Leary says gnomically that “the nervous system sees no color, feels no pain” he means that the nervous system on this level sees no color, feels no pain. You are floating, and this is the first light on the tree that really feels like a light. Acidheads will know.

Above Tiphareth are two more unbalanced lights called Geburah and Chesed. Roughly, Geburah is the stage of Nietzsche’s superman: he who is much more conscious than ordinary people and knows it. In George Lucas’s symbolism, Geburah means “being seduced by the dark side of the Force.” It needs to be balanced by Chesed, which is humility in the deepest, more ego-destroying sense. In Castaneda’s lingo, Geburah is “taking responsibility” and Chesed is doing so while always remembering that “you are no more important than the coyote.”

Geburah says “I am God”; Chesed says, “And so is everybody else—and everything else!”

There are three more lights on the tree. These are known as the supernals and are much further from ordinary human consciousness than Tiphareth, Geburah or Chesed. Many Cabalists say that you cannot reach the supernals without the direct help of the Almighty. Even with such divine aid, reaching the supernals is known as “crossing the abyss” and is regarded as fraught with peril.

The first two supernals are Chokmah and Binah. You will note on the diagram that they are both unbalanced—off the Middle Pillar. Basically, Chokmah is direct contact with the masculine aspect of “God” and corresponds to whatever you associate with Jehovah, Jupiter, Brahma, Zeus, et cetera. Binah is direct contact with the female side of divinity and corresponds to Venus, Ishtar, Kali or the White Goddess that Robert Graves is always writing about. Cabala says that each of these Close Encounters has to be “balanced.” That is, you have to get beyond both Big Daddy and Big Mommy to arrive at the ultimate light, Kether, the balanced center of all consciousness, which is beyond gender, beyond space, beyond time, beyond words and beyond all categories. In short, Kether is exactly what all the Oriental mystics are seeking: pure consciousness without a blemish of emotion, idea or image, and therefore infinite and formless.

Cabala is very complicated and very very intricate; the above sketch is no more than a hint of what the Tree of Life contains, on about the level of a discussion of chemistry that tells you there are eight families of elements but does not go on to list the elements in each family. To discuss Cabala fully requires many books; and indeed there is one good-sized book, Liber 777, by Aleister Crowley, which consists only of listing the elements in each light and path of the tree, and Liber 777 consists of 155 pages with four columns on each page.

The purpose of such lists is to design rituals, and the purpose of rituals is to program your own experience as you navigate from one light to another. As Tim Leary once said, “Ritual is to the inner sciences what experiment is to the outer sciences.” Cabalists agree.

For instance, suppose you have had a very powerful experience of the Punishing Father aspect of God, such as John Calvin once had. Within the orthodox Judeo-Christian tradition, you might take this literally and proceed, as Calvin did, to establish a new religion. As a Cabalist, you will recognize it as a Chokmah experience and know that it needs to be balanced by a Binah experience.

You then look on the Tree of Life for a path from Chokmah to Binah. That turns out to be daleth (“door”), which corresponds to the Empress card in the tarot. If you look at the Empress you will immediately note that she happens to be a pregnant woman sitting in a field surrounded by vegetation. That should tell your unconscious what the path of daleth means. (By a “strange accident” or “mere coincidence” the Empress card, in most tarot decks, contains the women’s-liberation symbol and always has, long before there was a feminist movement. That should help jar your consciousness.)

Flashback Friday: Cabala, Tasting The Forbidden Fruit Of The Tree Of Life
High Times

If the Empress card doesn’t tell you enough, you look up daleth in any Cabalistic textbook, such as Crowley’s 777. You will find that daleth is “in correspondence with” such things as the planet Venus, the color emerald green, the swan, the rose, sandalwood incense, the heptagram (seven-sided polygon), et cetera, and is most powerful on Friday. Thus, to get from Chokmah to Binah, you construct a ritual—a dramatized mind-change operation—to be performed within a heptagram, on Friday evening as Venus is rising, using emerald green decorations, roses, swan feathers and sandalwood incense. If you follow all these correspondences, and know how to write rituals, and have had enough experiences with Cabala to have developed a powerful will and imagination, you should achieve Binah, the vision of the All-Loving Mother.

Similarly, there are favorable days, and perfumes, and geometric figures, and other accessories, for every type of brain change operation. Sunday is best for Tiphareth (Christ consciousness), Monday for Yesod (building a stronger ego), Tuesday for Geburah (accumulating power), Wednesday for Hod (wisdom), Thursday for Netzsch (moral strength), Friday for Binah and Saturday for Chokmah.

This is only the skeleton of Cabala, however. Real Cabalistic practice consists of so familiarizing yourself with all the correspondences on the Tree of Life that everything you experience is filed and indexed by your brain as a Cabalistic “message.” Thus, if you walk out the door and see a palm tree, you immediately (by self-conditioning with Cabala) think of Venus and Hermes—because door is daleth is Venus, and palm is beth is Hermes. If you see a license plate with 333 on it, you remember that that is the number of egotism and deception, and you must ask what egotism and deception remains in yourself. In short, nothing is trivial; nothing is insignificant; nothing is meaningless. The whole universe, as Crowley says, becomes a continuous ritual of initiation.

A Zen Master was once asked, “What is Zen?” “Attention,” he replied. “Is that all?” asked the inquirer. “Attention,” the Zen Master repeated. “Won’t you say anything else?” persisted the questioner. “Attention,” said the Master, one more time.

Cabala creates attention by using the Tree of Life to “key” every possible impression to one of the lights or paths and hence to a stage in the evolution of consciousness. The world becomes—as it was to Plato and Mary Baker Eddy and Sir Humphrey Davy when he tried nitrous oxidenothing but ideas.

Theoretical cabala is much concerned with words and numbers, and indeed insists that every word is a number. This is literally true in Hebrew, because all Hebrew letters are numbers, and the number of a word is the number obtained by adding its separate letters together. Cabala claims that any words having the same number are in some sense identical or “in correspondence with” each other.

For instance, achad (I am writing the Hebrew as if it were English, for simplicity’s sake) has the value of 13. So does ahebah. What does this mean? Well, achad translates as “unity” and ahebah as “love,” so by the mathematical theorem that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other, the Cabalist calculates that love (ahebeh) equals 13 and unity (achad) equals 13 and therefore love equals unity. And, of course, when you love somebody you are in union with them: You are happy when they are happy; you suffer when they suffer.

Better still, it works backwards, too, according to some Cabalists: 31 is 13 backwards and therefore 31 is mystically the same as 13. And Al, the oldest name of God in Hebrew, has the value 31. Therefore, God equals love equals unity.

Which is all very nice and cheerful, and it’s pleasant to have our first lesson in theoretical Cabala coming up with such pleasant information.

Unfortunately, la (nothing) also equals 31. Is God therefore nothing? Or is it unity that is nothing? or love?

The theoretical Cabalist is not abashed. God is nothing, he says firmly—no-thing. And in this he is in agreement with the Buddhists and Hindus and, indeed, the most advanced mystics of all traditions. It only sounds queer to those primitives down at the bottom of the Tree of Life in Hod (rationalism) or Netzach (conventional religion); if you persist in Cabala long enough, the divine no-thing will make perfect sense to you.

Unfortunately, before you arrive at Kether—”the Head without a Head,” the divine nothing—you will be sure to encounter even worse shocks in theoretical Cabala. Thus, neschek, the serpent in Genesis, the devil himself, has the value 358. You don’t have to look far to find another Hebrew word with the value 358. It jumps up at you, as soon as you start studying Cabala. It is messiah.

In what sense is the devil the messiah? Some Cabalists have gone quite batty working on that one.

The charm of Cabala is that the universe adjusts—or in your excited and overstimulated state, appears to adjust—in ways that heighten such perplexities. When I first discovered the 358-equals-devil-equals-messiah paradox, I had to go to Los Angeles on business. Arriving at my hotel I found I had been given room 358. That’s the sort of “strange accident” that Yeats was talking about, as one of the portals to Cabala…

For several years English biologist Lyall Watson has been collecting the products of Jung’s “collective unconsciousness”—dreams, hypnotic states, mediumistic phenomena, automatic writing, et cetera. In his book, Lifetide, Watson offers a tentative summary of the data: “…there is a sameness in the tone, the word structure, the feeling, and the delivery of almost all the material. It has a dreamlike quality, and my feeling is that the vast majority of all the evidence I am looking at is a series produced by one prodigious dreamer” (italics added).

William Butler Yeats, trying to justify his interest in Cabalastic magic to rationalistic friends, came up with the same metaphor: “The borders of our minds are ever shifting, and many minds can flow into one another, as it were, and create or reveal a single mind … our memories are part of one great memory, the memory of Nature herself.”

This “one great dreamer” or “one great memory” can be accessed by Cabalistic practices, or by Zen meditation, or by LSD, or by a dozen other gimmicks. It has the quality of oneness in that it is the same no matter who accesses it or when—whether they are in India 500 B.C. or Florence A.D. 1300 or in New York City today. It seems to be “timeless” or unconnected to our conscious notions of sequential time, as even so materialistic an observer as Freud noticed. One of the benefits of the psychological investigations of our times—from Freud and Jung to the LSD research of the ’60s and the human-potential movement—has been to make most of us aware again, for the first time since the 17th century that this level of the psyche exists in all of us and cannot safely be repressed or ignored.

The Cabalist, scorned by the 19th century as a crank or a charlatan, seems to be having the last laugh after all. There may be only one person in 10,000—or in 100,000—who seriously studies Cabala, but the avant-garde third of the population understands Cabalistic logic very well. If you show them the Tree of Life, and explain it, they might say that it is an alternative map of the chakras—if they are into Oriental mind-science; or an anatomy of the collective unconscious—if they’re into Jung; or the circuits of the nervous system—if Tim Leary is their bag; but one way or another they will recognize it. It looked like gibberish to Yeats’s contemporaries.

Military Intelligence never could figure out how the “angelic archers” escaped from Arthur Machen’s imagination to the perceptions of the soldiers at Mons. But the readers of this magazine understand. Don’t you?

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