The Kabbalistic Universes: a Map for the Spiritual Journey

A Map

Something about the quality and design elements of this sweater captured me the first time I saw it in the catalogue. The rich earth and sky colors.  The embroidered, what? –ladders, tracks, pieces of fence one could climb through; a boundary, but a permeable one?

Each one of these has been a metaphor for practice, given me a different map for my spiritual journeying – a ladder that connects earth and heaven, a path through wilderness and confusion, a way of understanding the vital importance of boundaries that do not wall off life, but let Reality, let God, shine and move through.

For close to twenty years, I was devoted to climbing the ladder, and with poor understanding at that. I was just trying a “spiritual”  way to escape from my body and the demands of material life, a life where I felt cut off and isolated even from myself.

I have been enlightened, enlivened, and comforted to find in the Jewish wisdom tradition a map of interpenetrating worlds and multiple paths of knowledge.

This map guides me as I come into relationship with life as it is showing up, with how I am showing up in life, with who I am. This map has brought home to me that relationship itself is the fundamental thread that weaves together all of life. Like a fine lambswool sweater.

Each universe both surrounds and fills those within it.

From the viewpoint of this depiction of the Kabbalistic universes, even as we journey, we simultaneously live in the presence of all creation. We live in multiple and interpenetrating universes, states of consciousness or soul, often represented as concentric circles, each world surrounding and filling those within it. It is Reality itself, the Presence of God itself, that is the fabric of all.

At any given moment, however, I go through life splitting the world. I limit the amount of reality that I allow to a level of suffering – and joy – that I can bear. I selectively split off and selectively awake, living in one or two of these worlds only.

The “journey” is then our gradual, erratic, persistent wandering, awakening to the reality of the universes, to our own glories and limitations, a re-unification, an enlivening of the everything that is right here, right now.

This understanding fuels my patience to keep working on myself, while I also deeply claim who I am just as I am. To live a life that is not more perfect, but more human. To be willing to be, forever, a work in progress.

The world of doing…

The world of Doing (Hebrew: Assiyah) circumscribes a material world of objects that act upon one another, behaviors utterly without introspection. When split off from the other worlds, what we might call Doing-only, our relationships are black or white: no gray areas. People are objects, either with us or against us, friends or enemies. The body is an object, and we look for silver bullets to fix us. God is far away, at times absent, and our prayers range from the ritual and magical to supplication and bargaining across an otherwise unbridgeable gap.

Separateness is a hallmark of this world. Yet when transparent to the worlds that surround and fill it, our material, physical life is stable and dynamic, preciousness and beauty are everywhere, even in suffering, and we have a deep sense of being at home in the world.

The world of formation…

The world of Formation (Hebrew: Yetzirah) circumscribes a world of self-reflection and story-making, a quantum leap into a realm where the personal unconscious awakens. Our relationships shift as we begin to explore the motivation and intent of our own and others’ behaviors. Most of us spend the majority of our waking and dream life in this state.

This world takes its name from our devotion to “forming” and shaping meaning, understanding and insight out of what life brings us. We have broken out of the trance-like consciousness of Doing-only, and become seekers. The spiritual journey is born here. Personal story is crafted here.

Relationships are more nuanced – we find a single person may be friend, ally, enemy. We can disagree without going to war. Here we can begin to work through the knots of family history and personality. We may plumb what ails an organ of the body for its metaphoric value, and see how words as well as herbs and medicines can heal. Our prayers shift to encompass acceptance, gratitude, thanksgiving, guidance, and mystery. God may be a Friend and Companion.

This all sounds pretty good, right? Progress, freeing, much to celebrate. And many paths culminate here.

But this world when split off remains suffused with duality. In a world of Story-only, we live more responsibly and with growing freedom and skillful means. Yet our relationships remain captive to unceasing comparison, weighing every distinction as good or bad, as it affects our personal safety and well-being. Self judgment, and all of the varied ways we make ourselves larger or smaller than we are thrive in Story-only.

The world of creation…

The world of Creation (Hebrew: Briah) circumscribes a universe of spacious possibility, where we make another quantum leap, this time from the personal unconscious to the nondual and fully human where each person and object is simply itself and takes its place in the whole of reality, distinct and in relationship.

It is through persisting in our personal work in the Universe of Formation that we come into this Briatic relationship with the fullness of our own humanity. Honesty and kindness begin to shine through more and more. We become the size that we actually are, both awakened and still waking up to all that is present in our life.

Conflict does not disappear. But the heat of friction subsides. Cause and effect are understood as a single unified event.  Here we pray with complete honesty, however we need to pray.

We can and do split this world off too. In Creation-only we leave behind the body, heart and psychology that make us truly human. We paper over our problems, dissociate from, or actively try to transcend the body, the “Lower Self,” and war. We seek a place of unchanging peace and harmony – precisely what I was after when I was climbing the spiritual ladder.

As we become more and more established in the nondual, in life as it is and as we are, the nature of effort changes. We are not so much seeking, ferreting out, making meaning. Rather we become willing creatures moving and in relationship with the never-ending changes that life brings. We don’t so much use as embody our skillful means. We arrive at right action not only because we have become more discerning of intellect and heart, but because our sense of self is now both personal and not.

The world of emanation…

The world of Emanation (Hebrew: Atzilut) circumscribes a world before there is a world we can even conceive of, a universe of undivided oneness that pre-exists separateness. This universe is essentially unknowable to us, yet is our source and foundation, a mystery that suffuses our material world, emotional and psychological being, and our most honest, kind and enlightened state.

The map that draws us home…

Each of us is delivered at birth into the center of these universes, a separate being wholly dependent on our caretakers, who both tend and fail us in their humanity.

The spiritual “journey” is a gradual, erratic, persistent wandering, awakening to the reality of the universes, to our own glories and limitations, a re-unification, an enlivening of the everything that is right here, right now.

I like to think that what sets us off on this journey – what accounts for the yearning, the wrestling, the ultimate willingness to engage and persist – is the Undivided Oneness that is right here, not yet fully known to me, tickling me and pulling me forward and back.

The map is vital to me not as a shiny or magical key, but because it draws me to notice what is here, and just that noticing brings me into relationship with my life. Hold too tightly to the map, and I risk thinking I can stop the movement of life. So I hold it lightly, and the map brings me more deeply into the territory of who I am, and how life is.

I know this about myself: I treasure this map.  Especially for those times when I lose heart. Without help, I may not even be able to locate myself – but I trust the map, I trust Reality. And that Reality teaches me there is no failure, that my inherent optimism about our capacity for healing and wholeness is not a delusion, and that even as I am convinced I am confused and lost, that I am held and safe in the mystery.

An invitation to reflect, draw or journal…

Wherever you are on your journey, what if you trusted that you are being pulled toward the center of your own existence, your home, the heart-intelligence of Reality, the Indwelling Presence of God?

What if you trusted that coming into relationship with your very human self, warts and all, is not an obstacle, but the very vehicle to take you home?

How would that change your relationship to yourself? to others? to God? to your journeying?