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Kabbalah as a Spiritual Practice

Kabbalah is a centuries-old body of literature, but it is often studied today alongside yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices. Our exact notion of practice (yoga) is somewhat foreign to Kabbalah, but if we were to view Kabbalah as a spiritual practice, how would it work? What does Kabbalah "do" for us as spiritual seekers?

Let's assume for a moment a basic tenet of Kabbalah: that, ordinarily, we are only receiving a small portion of what the world is manifesting at any moment. Scientifically, and intuitively, we know this to be true. If our minds did not filter out perceptions deemed to be extraneous, we would be flooded with sensory input and unable to do anything. We would be like infants, with only the most rudimentary tools to understand or relate to reality. Thus, our minds develop to screen out what is irrelevant, and organize perceptual information in ways which, experience has taught us, work.

We can know this directly simply by closing our eyes and trying to remember mundane details of our surroundings. What the images are on the sides of this page, for example. Or even what you are wearing today. Some things we notice, some we forget, and some we barely seem to encounter in the first place.

If we accept the principle that there is more to the world than what we usually perceive, then the question arises of how, if we are interested, we might perceive more: more joy, more life, more connection with the things which matter to us. This is what we might mean when we say "receiving" (kabbalah): receiving more of whatever life is. So how do we do that?

The most familiar means of doing so is probably that of meditation. By slowing down the rushing trains of thought, it is possible to observe the mind more clearly, and to notice each perception in greater and greater detail. All sorts of results tend to appear. Psychologically, meditators can become much more attuned to their feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, noticing negative emotions like anger, hurt or sadness before they "take over" and noticing positive emotions when they arise. People who meditate thus tend to be able to relax more easily, since they are not being driven by their emotional, reactive minds. We are also able to perceive the world more clearly -- one mouthful of food, one step, or one breath at a time. For "spiritual" types like me, the world becomes achingly beautiful, and perceptibly charged by the Divine. Meditation does, indeed, help me see more clearly -- and what I see accords with what mystics have written about for centuries.

All that said, this form of meditation is not present in Kabbalah until the nineteenth century. Today, there are many teachers who integrate the basic practice of insight meditation with Kabbalistic ideas and structures -- myself included. But the forms of meditation indigenous to the Kabbalah are subtly different, and meditation itself is, while present, not central to every type of Kabbalah.

So, let's proceed instead from the Kabbalah's assumptions and structures.

Theosophical Kabbalah helps practitioners receive the fullness of reality by closely attuning them to the symbolic and energetic structures of that reality, in text and in life. Take the ten sefirot. Each of these can be experienced as physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual realities. As one learns to do so, one deepens one's vocabulary of experience, and becomes more and more attuned to the minute fluctuations of it. Elsewhere on this site, I go through the sefirot in detail, and draw an analogy to the (false) urban legend about Eskimos having many words for snow. The point of that analogy is that as our vocabulary grows, our experience deepens.

If you really immerse yourself in theosophical Kabbalah, learning the Zohar, coming to know its symbols, you will discover for yourself that the chains of associations begin to flow very easily. You can "jam" with the Zohar the way a jazz musician jams on a motif in a composition. You can feel the interplay of energies (and I use this term very loosely) in your lived experience. And you gradually begin to open up, deepen, and receive.

It works -- but the only way to know whether it works is to try it. And to try it takes a lot of learning and effort. Theosophical Kabbalah is not like basic meditation, which anyone can pick up with just a few days of practice. It exists within an elaborate context of symbols, language, and religious structures, which is one reason it is often reserved for advanced students.

Many spiritual seekers today are convinced that any spiritual path can be learned quickly, in one's spare time, and in English. Well, this is not true. Some paths can, and some cannot. Whether for better or for worse, theosophical Kabbalah cannot. You can learn the symbols, acquaint yourself with the core truths, and deepen your appreciation for life through the Kabbalah's beautiful ideas. However, the fact is that in order to become truly fluent with the particulars of theosophical Kabbalah, it takes time.

Prophetic Kabbalah has a more familiar, and accessible, path to receiving: meditation. The precise techniques of Abulafia and his students do depend on the Hebrew language, but I've found that they can be transposed into English fairly easily. What those techniques do is loosen the grip of thought, just like insight meditation. Their method, though, is very different: they scramble the mind, a bit like Zen, and unchain the subconscious, a bit like some forms of psychoanalysis. With free association, letter permutation, and many other techniques, the practices of prophetic Kabbalah scramble up the thinking mind, enabling more direct perception of reality.

Just from this short description, you can see how different the methods of prophetic Kabbalah are from those of theosophical Kabbalah. Prophetic, or ecstatic, practice does not fine-tune the senses to the minute fluctuations of the sefirot; it shakes up the mind until it can see reality directly. Now, prophetic Kabbalah does still work with the language and topics of Kabbalah -- sefirot, letters of the alphabet, Divine names, and so on. However, it uses those resources to engender a mystical experience.

It, too, works, though it, too, takes a lot of practice. You can taste the fruits of ecstatic Kabbalah fairly quickly if you devote even a single night to it -- but you do need to devote the whole night, permuting letters and allowing the mind to free itself up. Critically (as described in the prophetic Kabbalah section), the point is not to get high; it's to receive insights. You will, if you do the practices, get high -- by which I mean, you will attain an altered mind-state that will hopefully be fascinating and delightful for you. (It may also be frightening, if you have fears or insecurities that arise too strongly.) But to just drift along in the altered mindstate, blissing out, is to miss the point. There are fruits to this practice, "messages" that seem to come from outside, or from deep inside -- which are really the same place. It will be obvious to you how Abulafia would understand these messages as prophecy from God. Whether you see them that way, or see them only as your deepest self speaking to you -- well, that depends on your theology. But don't ignore them; they're part of what you're there to receive.

Finally, practical Kabbalah also has its path to receiving. Returning to the basic assumption at the top of this page -- there is more than what we usually perceive -- practical Kabbalah aims to attune us to specific "frequencies" (again, a term used loosely and metaphorically) that we ordinarily tune out. What is magic, really, but a tapping into energies and potencies we normally ignore? It's easy to say, from a position of doubt, that these potencies are nonsense, that we don't believe in magic. But without direct experience, how do you really know? Because there are charlatans on television? Because there's been no "scientific" study of it? Well, how could scientific studies work, when the intentions of the participants (there should not be any observers) are what determine the outcome?

I'm not saying you should believe in magic. In fact, I'm saying the opposite, that you shouldn't believe in anything. But that includes your own preconceptions. Believe nothing. Experience everything.

On the path of practical Kabbalah, practitioners attempt to discover, and use, aspects of the world which we don't yet understand. Some of it, undoubtedly, is psychosomatism. And some of it is probably hogwash. But, in my experience, some of it is real -- not necessarily explicable, but practically indubitable. What one learns, when one's preconceptions about the world are shaken in this way, is that there is more to receive than we ever imagined. There are layers of reality, energies of reality, that are out there, but of which we are not ordinarily aware. So practical Kabbalah, too, enables us to receive more.

These ways of receiving are experiential, and, as a result, my review of them accentuates some aspects of the Kabbalah at the expense of others. There are some who would say that Kabbalah is entirely a textual phenomenon, and that to talk of experience at all is a mistake. But the Kabbalists themselves describe experiences -- not always in the classic "mystical testimony" form, but in various ways in different sources. And I think that if we do not involve the experiential element in our own learning, we are reading recipes instead of tasting the meal. Is that really a deep knowledge of truth?