Sunday, December 13, 2015

10 Books That Have Had a Deep Impact On Me

I want one...

I love books.  I have a bit of an addiction to books at this point.  I'm constantly devouring them.  So I had this idea to make a list of 10 books that have really had a deep impact on me - books that have radically changed my perspective.  I did this, but then I wanted to write about why these books are in my list.  So I'm going to list them here in chronological order of when I read them, because I don't want to even attempt to try to order these by importance or how deep of an impact they had or anything like that.  And I'm going to cheat a bit - I'm going to list my 10 most influential books, but you'll see me mention a few others that are related in there.

Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus

Twice in my life I have gone through what St. John of the Cross calls a "Dark Night of the Soul".  The second time, I felt that the faith I had grown up with had been exposed to me.  The god I had believed in had been unmasked and this god was Moloch.  I felt I needed to question everything - but I was terrified.  After my first dark night, I had left the church for a number of years and had been very lonely.  After coming back, I had experienced some healing.  I didn't realize at the time of this second dark night that I still had a long ways to go towards healing - but I knew at this point that I needed to question, and I was scared that I was going to lose so much.  Then the pastor of my church at the time preached a series of sermons inspired by this book during the Christmas season - and I was absolutely certain of one thing and one thing alone: I loved Jesus and wanted to follow him to the best of my ability.  This book made Jesus human for the first time in my life - I had really grown up with a docetic view of Jesus, and this book brought Jesus back down to earth for me in a way that I could relate, and in a way that made me want to follow Jesus, not just "believe in" him (in the sense of claiming ideas about him).  One of my favorite chapters in the book - which said something I especially needed to hear at this time - was a chapter where Ortberg explores the impact of the fact that when Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 ("love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength"), Jesus changed the phrase "all your strength" to "all your mind" (note that in some places, both phrases appear - but the idea is that "all your mind" wasn't in the original command).  So Ortberg explores how the track of history seems to have changed after Jesus - prior to Jesus, the common practice of a conquering nation was to wipe out all the literature of the conquered.  But after Jesus this seems to have changed - Christian monks actually felt it was their duty to preserve the literature of what might be considered "rivals".  So Ortberg writes:
To love God with all my mind means following truth ruthlessly wherever it leads.  It means cherishing truth whether it comes from the Bible or from science or from an atheist.  It means anti-intellectualism is anti-Christian.
This was exactly what I needed to hear at this point, and it freed me to pursue truth in a way I'd never done before.  That perspective changed my life forever. 

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith

After committing to "loving God with all my mind" as Ortberg describes above, I decided I was going to explore perspectives I was unfamiliar with, and ask questions I hadn't asked before.  I wasn't exactly sure how to go about doing that, though.  I really kind of stumbled onto Brian McClaren by accident - I had this thought that went something like this: the pastor of the local Vineyard likes N.T. Wright, and reformed presbyterians (PCA - where I was raised) don't (mostly because John Piper is their big hero, and Wright demolished all his arguments regarding justification - but they wouldn't put it that way).  So I thought I should find out more about this Wright guy, and I was googling him and stumbled on this interview where Brian McClaren was mentioned.  From there, I ended up reading some of his stuff on Huffington Post that was promoting what was his latest book at the time ("Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?"), and I felt this peace and love just radiating out of the words of those articles.  So I looked up some of his books, and found that this seemed to be the one of his that everyone was talking about.  And it was immensely helpful to me - McClaren gently led me to ask questions I hadn't dared to ask before.  Some of those questions really scared me - but I had determined not to let fear keep me from asking questions, so I decided to ask them anyways.  It was hard for a while - I really didn't know how to reconcile some things.  But I was determined to keep exploring.  So while I wouldn't say that this book is full of all kinds of detailed, scholarly information, and it didn't answer many questions - it will always be one of my favorite books because it led me to the questions I needed to ask and changed my life forever.

Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God

One of the questions Brian McClaren led me to ask that just would not go away was the question of how to understand hell.  That question obsessed me for a while - I've probably read more about hell (and the related subjects of Satan, demons, and heaven) than any other subject.  And while I'd list other books as more scholarly references on the subject of hell (one of my favorites would be the very thorough "Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem" by Brad Jersak - which blew away my expectations), this book is the first hell book that really impacted me as a friend pointed me to it when I was right in the midst of wrestling with this issue.  This book simply and thoughtfully explains the concepts of sin, hell, and the love of God in a way that really helped me to heal and to trust.  Changing my views on hell was a very important step in my faith, and I believe it's a very important question for the Church to discuss at this stage if it wants to remain relevant.  Salvation is not about holding a golden ticket into heaven, or fire insurance.  Salvation is about living life to the fullest.

The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction

The central theme of this book explores the idea that a common view of the Christian God is really just another form of idol - the idea that God is meant to be the object of our desires and gives us satisfaction, as if God were some sort of cosmic genie, and we cannot be whole without obtaining Him as if God were another possession to have. But Rollins contends that, rather, Christianity is meant to challenge and demolish the whole system of idolatrous desire - of seeking wholeness through obtaining our idols. Wrapped up in this is the concept that we avoid all doubt by creating idolatrous concepts of God that we refuse to challenge - but that real faith is not hiding from out doubts but facing them without fear. This book was a moment of enlightenment for me, and has been for many other Christians who have struggled with doubt or unknowingly avoided it.  I feel this should be considered a modern theological classic and a must read for every Christian

Living Buddha, Living Christ

After latching onto the Augustinian idea that "all truth is God's truth" as Ortberg had led me to do with "Who Is This Man?", I had decided to explore what Buddhism was really all about because I had a friend who was Buddhist (I have written about this here and here).  So I started asking him about Buddhism without any pressure - I just wanted to understand him better.  Strangely enough, what he was saying really resonated with me, and actually led me to think about some Biblical teachings in ways I never had before.  As I expressed excitement about this, he eventually lent me this book by Thích Nhất Hạnh.  And it might sound strange, but I would say that I never really understood the Holy Spirit until I read this book.  Just as a note, I wanted to say that if you want to explore a more scholarly view on the intersections between Buddhism and Christianity by a Christian scholar, I would recommend Paul Knitter's book "Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian".  But I have to list this book as it was my introduction to Buddha, which strangely led me to think of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in new and powerful ways.

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

I was terrified to read this book (I kind of laugh about that now).  Before reading it, I had caught the N.T. Wright bug - I had read a few of his books, including my favorite, "Surprised by Hope", which led me to think of heaven and salvation in new and powerful ways ("Kingdom Theology", as some theologians would say).  And somewhere along the lines I became aware that there were people who challenged the perspective of my hero, Wright.  Since I had decided to question everything and let the chips fall where they may, I decided I needed to find out what these challengers had to say and what their defense might be.  But I was scared to do this - what if I found their ideas convincing and lost the hope I'd found?  Nevertheless, I felt I had to do this and face my fear - and I found out about the existence of this book.  Well, surely Wright will demolish all of Borg's arguments, eh?  Surprisingly, I found out two things that I didn't expect to find: 

  1. Borg was more convincing to me than Wright, and 
  2. there was nothing to be afraid of.  I actually found peace through Borg's challenges in a way that I really didn't expect.

New Seeds of Contemplation

This book has probably impacted me more than any other - it is very probably my favorite book.  I quote it more than any other book.  My profile signature on this forum comes from this book.  I had a good friend of mine - an avid reader - give me a copy of this book, and when he did he told me that while reading it he felt as if he'd never read another book before this one. I could understand his sentiment. When I read this book, I was reminded of the Tolkien picture of the elvish lembas wafer - one bite was enough to sustain a traveler for a day. Each paragraph in this book is so rich and wondrous, and it would often take me a few days to get through a single chapter of this book - not because it was difficult to read, but because it was so wonderful and thought-provoking that I felt I shouldn't rush through.

Predictably Irrational

I fell in love with psychology because of this book, and it has helped me immensely in the area of challenging my own biases.  This book simply explains psychology in a way that anyone can understand, and that is super fun.  If you haven't read this book, by all means pick up a copy!

Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence

This is the second book of Walter Wink's "Powers Trilogy" (with "Naming the Powers" and "Engaging the Powers" being the first and third) - and I think that series should be required reading for every theology student.  I was absolutely enthralled with the perspective Wink brought to the table regarding spiritual warfare, and it had a huge impact on my own thinking.

God Is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism

Before reading this book, I had both become fascinated with Christian Mysticism, and had decided that if I really wanted to understand Jesus I needed to start trying to understand Judaism (because Jesus was, quite obviously, a Jew!).  I don't remember how I stumbled on this book, but it seemed the perfect starting point for me because it was a Jewish mystical view!  I found this deeply impactful - Rabbi Cooper challenged me to think of God in a very powerful way that captured my imagination: God as the Ground of all Being.  God as Being means that God is the force behind creation itself - not creation in a static sense, but creation as a continual growth.  There is a Jewish story that says that every blade of grass has an angel standing above it whispering "grow!"  Rabbi Cooper challenged me to think of God as Be-ing itself which continually calls all things to grow.  I've been fascinated by both Mysticism and Judaism since, and have focused much of my reading on those subjects (hence, my series "Judaism and the Mystical Christ").

Well that's my list - there are plenty of other books I wish I could have snuck in here, but these are the ones that I stuck with.  What are yours?

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 11: Concluding Thoughts for "Book I"

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


Body of Christ
The mystical view of the Unity of God - where we are all emanations of God - may sound like nonsense, and it may sound like heresy.  The history of the church has certainly had its fair share of mystics who were accused of heresy for their views.

For example, Meister Eckhart was accused of heresy, defended himself to the satisfaction of his immediate superiors, but was then put under the inquisition by the archbishop.  He was tried for heresy by Pope John XXII, but never received a verdict.  Of course, in this period of history, the church was extremely trigger happy. 

Teresa of Ávila was also put under the process of inquisition for her mystical views, but had the process dropped in 1579.  One of my favorite stories involves her inquisition - the priests of the inquisition accused her of not believing in hell (something I am familiar with), and the story goes that after responding "oh, I believe there is a hell", she supposedly whispered to a nun nearby: "'s just that no one is there!"

The view of God that I have attempted to present here is not a heresy.  It has popped up over and over again throughout history - as Richard Rohr points out:

Both the Dominican Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Duns Scotus said Deus est ens, God is being itself.
In another of his meditations, Rohr points out:
Unfortunately, at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), this view–the single, unified nature of Christ–was rejected for the “orthodox” belief, held to this day by most Christian denominations, that emphasizes two distinct natures in Jesus instead of one new synthesis. Sometimes what seems like orthodoxy is, in fact, a well-hidden heresy!
In our modern world, it has become more and more obvious that human violence is a serious problem.  And it seems that religion - every religion - has played a part in violence: if not producing it, then at least in justifying and sustaining it.  The question we must ask is: why do we act violently?  Of course, people do not often ponder this question deeply enough - we simply justify our violence as being self-defense.  But this does nothing to answer the question of the source of violence - do we never stop to think if their violence is also seen as self-defense?  And does it really help to stop the cycle of violence if we simply justify our violence in this way?

Violence occurs because we separate people into categories - we justify anything that falls under the labels "we", "us", and "our".  But of course the violence that falls under the labels of "them" and "their" is despicable and wrong.  When we do this, we have dehumanized a subset of people who are seen as different - people who have been put in the category of other.  This is the sort of logic which enables violence - and this is why so much popular religion only contributes to violence.  Our people are beloved by God, but they are not.

But if we recognize that all people are not only beloved, but share in the very Being of God, such violence becomes, in our minds, what is actually is in reality: completely irrational.  The mystical view teaches us that God has created you outside of God’s self so that God might reconcile you with God’s self and bring you into Unity (see Col. 1:16-17, 19-20; Eph. 4:1-6).

In "The God Theory", Bernard Haish quotes a wonderful passage from Neale Donald Walsch's "Conversations with God" that I would like to quote as well:

In the beginning, that which Is [the unmanifest God] is all there was, and there was nothing else. Yet All That Is could not know itself - because All That Is is all there was, and there was nothing else. And so, All That Is. . .was not. This is the great Is/ Not Is to which mystics have referred from the beginning of time.

Now All That Is knew it was all there was - but this was not enough, for it could only know its utter magnificence conceptually, not experientially. Yet the experience of itself is that for which it longed, for it wanted to know what it felt like to be so magnificent. Still, this was impossible, because the very term “magnificent” is a relative term. All That Is could not know what it felt like to be magnificent unless that which is not showed up.

And so All That Is divided Itself - becoming, in one glorious moment, that which is this and that which is that. For the first time, this and that existed, quite apart from each other.

From the No-Thing thus sprang the Everything - a spiritual event entirely consistent, incidentally, with what your scientists call the Big Bang Theory.

In rendering the universe as a divided version of itself, God produced, from pure energy, all that now exists - both seen and unseen. In other words, not only was the physical universe thus created, but the metaphysical universe as well.

My divine purpose in dividing Me was to create sufficient parts of Me that I could know Myself experientially.

This is what your religions mean when they say that you were created in the “image and likeness of God.” We are composed of the same stuff.

My purpose in creating you, My spiritual offspring, was for Me to know Myself as God. I have no way to do that save through you.

Under the plan, you as pure spirit would enter the physical universe just created. This is because physicality is the only way to know experientially what you know conceptually. It is, in fact, the reason I created the physical cosmos to begin with...

This is my plan for you. This is my ideal: that I should become realized through you. That thus, concept is turned into experience, that I might know my Self experientially.

Now I will explain to you the ultimate mystery; your exact and true relationship to me. YOU ARE MY BODY.

[...]you cannot experience yourself as what you are until you encounter what you are not. This is the purpose of. . .all physical life.

In a sense, you have to first “not be” in order to be. Of course, there is no way for you to not be who and what you are. . .So you did the next best thing. You caused yourself to forget Who You Really Are.

Upon entering the physical universe, you relinquish your remembrance of yourself. This allows you to choose to be Who You Are, rather than simply wake up in the castle, so to speak.

You are, have always been, and will always be, a divine part of the divine whole.
False Self / True Self
The concept of remembering the divine nature is a powerful tool - not only for healing us, but for understanding sin.  We need to learn to see sin not as a flat and unquestionable list of do's and don'ts, but rather as that which causes harm.  And then, when we sin, or when another sins, rather than filling them with shame and guilt, we can say to them: "remember who you are."

So much religion is based on the idea that, in order to keep people from doing harm, we must shame them.  But more and more, research is showing us that, while this may prevent evil for a time, in the end it backfires (for more on this, I suggest shame researcher and expert Brene Brown's "Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead").  In my life, I have discovered that encouragement is far more powerful than shame.  There was a period in my life where I had come face to face with just how badly I'd screwed things up - how foolish and stupid I'd been, and how I could possibly lose everything that mattered because of this.  I was incredibly discouraged, and felt worthless.  And I went to an old friend of mine during this time.  My friend believed "prophetic prayer", or "listening prayer" - something I'm still a bit skeptical about myself (I hope to explain this further in the second "book").  But what he did that day had an incredibly profound effect on me that I will never forget - he shared with me that he had been praying for me, and that he thought that God wanted me to know that God had gifted me in leadership, and that big things were in store for me.  In the following weeks, I started attending a church class that my friend co-taught.  After a short talk, the class would break up into groups and discuss, and one night, my friend said to me "you know, Geoff, you really do have leadership gifts.  When you talk during discussion, you show knowledge and experience, and people listen."  My friend's encouragement did much more to change me and cause the kind of repentance I talked about in the first chapter than shame ever could.  And that is why I feel we should not focus on shame, but should rather show people how sin is harmful, and then remind them of the good they have inside.

Tamar Frankiel writes in "Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians":

A famous saying from the rabbinic tradition is that a person sins out of foolishness: If we only recognized the consequences of our actions and thoughts, we would not sin!
She goes on to write:
The Jewish mystics add another twist to this perspective. They say that our misunderstanding, based in our “forgetting” of our divine origin, is actually necessary so that God’s purpose in creating the earth can be accomplished. If we truly remembered accurately and clearly why we are here, we would not have free choice. We would be like angels who simply perform, without doubt or ambivalence, the duties assigned to them. But if we are truly to manifest godliness, we cannot be programmed into our assignments, because one of the characteristics of being made in the divine image is the ability to create freely. Thus, paradoxically, by obscuring our origins, God was able to give us free choice - to choose whether or not to manifest as loving, creative images of the Divine. This is simply the nature of earthly existence according to Kabbalah, and many other forms of mysticism agree. We volunteered for earthly service, but part of the package is that we cannot remember doing so. That is what makes life such a challenge.
In "New Seeds of Contemplation", the great mystic Thomas Merton writes about this concept in terms of the False Self.  He writes:
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God—because Truth, Light - knows nothing about him. And to be unknown to God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love - outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish most about ourselves - the ones we are born and raised with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to maintaining and expanding this false self, this shadow, is what is called a life of sin.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life around which everything else in the universe is ordered.
When we build our house on the False Self, we are building on sand (see Mt. 7:24-27) - the sand of the illusion that we are separate individuals who must compete for survival.  But we must build it upon the rock of the True Self and recognize that we are all connected, and that our survival depends upon each other and upon nurturing Creation.  This is the interconnectedness that results from love - and God is love.

Love - in the agape sense that is used in I Cor. 13 and when God’s essence is identified as love in I John 4:8 and 16 - is a selfless giving.  It is a self-emptying act - a kenosis - without fear or concern for one’s own being, for "perfect love casts out fear" (see I John 4:18).  And this is the pattern on which nature is built.

Timothy R. Jennings M.D. writes in "The God Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life":

We see the circle of love, the law of life, in everything God creates. In every breath we demonstrate giving: we give away carbon dioxide to the plants, and the plants give back oxygen to us. Imagine if you were to decide, “I don’t want to be a part of the circle of giving. If my body makes carbon dioxide, it’s mine; I have the right to it. You can’t have it.” The only way to do that is to stop breathing - to die. If we hoard the product of our breathing, maybe by putting a bag over our heads, the carbon dioxide becomes the poisoning agent that kills us. In all life we see this circle of giving, which is the law of love.
He goes on to ask his readers to consider how this circle of life is also demonstrated in the way electricity works - when you flip a switch to the "on" position, you are closing a loop through which electricity can flow, and when you flip it back to the "off" position, you are creating a separation in that loop - breaking the circle.  We can even see this "circle of life" pattern in economies - for an economy to be healthy, money has to flow.  Take money out of circulation, and the economy dies - which is what happened in the Great Depression when many people made a run on the banks and took their money out of circulation.

Dr. Jennings goes on to write:

Everything God creates gives freely in other-centered circles. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when the prophet Ezekiel looked into heaven in a vision, what he saw symbolizing the foundation of God’s government was a wheel within a wheel, a rotation within a rotation, a moving circle within a moving circle (Ezek 10:1-10).
Dr. Jennings also notes how recent brain research by Dr. Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated how various forms of religious contemplation actually change the brain itself - and writes:
Not only does other-centered love increase when we worship a God of love, but sharp thinking and memory improve as well. In other words, worshiping a God of love actually stimulates the brain to heal and grow.
I believe that recognizing that our True Self is love is strengthened by such findings.

When we begin to see that all are made in the image of God, and that God is love, we can understand why Merton writes:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love.

Love is my true identity.  Selflessness is my true self.  Love is my true character.  Love is my name.

If, therefore, I do anything or think anything of say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy.
In many cultures, there is an idea that when a person dies, they are presented with a trial where the deeds of their life are put onto a scale, and their eternal destination is determined by the measurement of this scale.  There is a wonderful Jewish story about this - according to the story, one good deed can outweigh a thousand evil deeds.  God adds an extra measure of love and mercy in order to balance the scales.  We can also think of how God has given us ways in this life to call forth the positive and diminish the negative - we can balance the scales with love.

Remember who you are.  You are the incarnation of Love itself.  You are the image of God.


Note: The blog will take a break until I have made enough progress on "Book II"  to begin posting one part at a time without catching up to myself.  In "Book II", I will attempt to make connections with the Jewish mystical view and the New Testament - particularly the Gospel accounts.

Judaism and the Mystical Christ, Ch. 10: The Tree of Life

Note: This is part of an ongoing series entitled "Judaism and the Mystical Christ".  I have created a blog entry containing the table of contents linking to each article which may be accessed here:

Table of Contents


Suggested listening:

Separation and Emanation
In "The God Theory", Bernard Haisch spends some time writing about the theory that he worked on with Alfonso Rueda regarding zero-point energy (sometimes called the zero-point field - this article delves into how this connects with the science I summarized in the last post).  Long before Haisch came onto the scene, Einstein postulated the possibility of a unified field - the idea that all energy is connected in a universal field of energy.  Haisch's work develops on this, because his work with Rueda involved coming up with various proofs that even in a vacuum, there are trace amounts of energy - light, in his theory - that actually may cause inertia.

Haisch writes:

The fact that the zero-point field is the lowest energy state makes it unobservable. We can only perceive it, as we perceive many things, by way of contrast. Your eye works by letting light fall on an otherwise-dark retina. But if your eye were filled with light, there would be no darkness to afford the contrast.
To put it quite simply, there is no such thing as total darkness in Haisch's theory, and thus, he may have found proof that Einstein's idea of all energy being connected in a unified field is correct.

Haisch uses light as an analogy for Creation, which I find fascinating in light of some Kabbalistic teachings I will be developing in this post.  Haisch suggests that God is white light, and asks his readers to think about how the act of "creating" other spectrums of light is an act of subtraction, rather than "ex nihilo".  To "create" red light, white light must either pass through a filter (which only allows the red spectrum to pass through - thus "subtracting" all the other spectrums), or it must be separated through a prizm.  So, Haisch suggests, we are all like the individual spectrums of that white light (indeed, the entire universe is).  Furthermore, to extend the analogy of light, we are like emanations of light from the Light that is God.

This is interesting when you note that Genesis 1 speaks of God “separating” things from each other in each act of creation (i.e. - God "separated the light from the darkness" in Gen. 1:4).  It is made even more interesting when you note how often the Bible compares God to parts of creation - God is compared to an eagle hovering over its young (Deut. 32:11), a mother bear "robbed of her cubs" and a lion (Hos. 13:8), a mother hen gathering the nation of Israel under her wings (Mt. 23:37 and Lk. 13:34), and even inanimate objects like a rock or fortress or shield (Ps. 18:2, 28:7, 78:35).  You may have noticed that some of those were female images - interestingly enough, Deuteronomy combines this motherly image with the "rock" concept when it refers to God as "the Rock that bore you" (Deut. 32:18).  We'll deal with more feminine imagery in a moment.  

What Haisch describes in his book and what I described in the last post - the idea that we share in God's self as being emanations of God's self - is not alien to mystical language at all.  As the anonymous mystical work, "The Cloud of Unknowing", puts it - God, in the mystical view, is "a nature found within all creatures but not restricted to them; outside all creatures, but not excluded from them."  While Carl Sagan writes in "Cosmos" that "we are made of starstuff", the mystical view is that we are made of Godstuff.

In Kabbalistic thought, the process of creation involves what is referred to as tzimtzum.  This word literally means "contraction" - and the idea is that before creation began, the white light of God filled the entire universe in such a way that the only thing that existed was God.  Then, in order to create, God contracted his infinite light (recall here that Ein Sof means "infinite") and created a space, or vacuum.  God then emanated his creative light into that space - this would be referred to in Christian language as incarnation.  Thus, paradoxically, the entire universe is both God and not God at the same time.

The Indian Jesuit priest, psychotherapist, and mystic Anthony de Mello wrote a piece in "One Minute Wisdom" that beautifully illustrates and clarifies this principle further:
"How does one seek union with God?"

"The harder you seek, the more distance you create between Him and you."

"So what does one do about the distance?"

"Understand that it isn't there."

"Does that mean that God and I are one?"

"Not one. Not two."

"How is that possible?"

"The sun and its light, the ocean and the wave, the singer and his song — not one. Not two."
Within this form of thought, God must be thought of as both immanent (present and contained within the known universe) and transcendent (beyond what is known and present - this involves mystery and the idea that God cannot be contained within any of our thoughts).  It is very important not to lose sight of either of these forms of thinking about God - when we focus too heavily on immanence, we begin to speak of God far too casually, and God begins to sound more like us (we make God in our image, and thus we worship an idol).  But if we focus to heavily on transcendence, God becomes distant - like an absent father - and our faith becomes empty and meaningless.  Within the paradox of mysticism, however, all things are a part of the infinite and unknowable Absolute - and this means that God is immanently transcendent.  Thus, while we understand that, as influential Jewish scholar Gershom Scholem writes in his book "Kabbalah", "no religious knowledge of God, even of the most exalted kind, can be gained except through contemplation of the relationship of God to creation", we continually remind ourselves that "God in Himself, the absolute Essence, lies beyond any speculative or even ecstatic comprehension."  Or to put it another way, all of our language about God is incomplete and inadequate to express the mystery of Ein Sof.

God as Mother
Before I move on to the Tree of Life, I need to cover the issue of gender language and God.  In Western patriarchal society, we have far too casually used the words "He", "His", and "Him" exclusively to speak of God.  But as I've already mentioned in this post - the Bible quite often uses feminine language to speak of God.  Our patriarchal society has hidden this from us and effectively whitewashed this powerful sign of the radical equality of mystical thought.  We need to go back to this language in order to remind ourselves that it is not merely men who are made in the image of God - as Gen. 1:27 says, "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." (emphasis mine)  Daniel C. Matt's translation of the Zohar comments on this verse:
From here we learn: Any image that does not embrace male and female is not a high and true image…. Come and see: The Blessed Holy One does not place His abode in any place where male and female are not found together. Blessings are found only in a place where male and female are found, as it is written: He blessed them and called their name Adam on the day they were created. It is not written: He blessed him and called his name Adam. A human being is only called Adam when male and female are as one.
To this effect, I would like to point out more of the feminine side of God.  I am not saying God is female - nor would I say that God is male.  God is both and neither.  Male and female were created out of God's image, and thus are both parts of God, but God is more than either.

When famed actor Leonard Nimoy passed away in February of 2015, the feminine side of God briefly went viral through a video where Nimoy explains that Jewish origin of Spock's greeting.  As you can see in the video below, Nimoy explains that the famous hand gesture Spock uses for a greeting originates from a Jewish ceremony where the feminine presence of God - the Shekhinah - passes through, and all present are expected to close their eyes out of reverence.

I find it interesting how casually Nimoy mentions the feminine side of God - whereas it causes a bit of scandal in Evangelical circles (unfortunately).  For example, when Rachel Held Evans used a feminine pronoun for God, Owen Strachen boldly accused her of heresy.

But we've already seen feminine imagery for God in the Bible.  To add to this, Isaiah repeatedly refers to God in terms of motherhood (Isa. 42:14, 49:15, 66:13), and the Psalms also use feminine imagery for God (e.g. Ps. 123:2-3, 131:2).

Besides these numerous instances of feminine imagery for God, one of the names for God is well known to be feminine - El Shaddai.  This name is regularly translated as "God Almighty", but this is the result of the Hebrew name being translated into the Greek word "pantokrator" (all powerful) in the Septuagint before being translated to English.  The name comes from "shaddah", which means "to pour out", and both the "Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament" and the "New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis" suggest that "shaddai" comes from the word for "breast" or "mountain".  Additionally, the word שד shad means "breast".  Thus, it has been suggested that a translation of this name would be "the Breasted One" or "the Breasty One".

The contextual use of this name seems to support such a theory, as most often it is used in close conjunction with fertility language.  For example, Genesis 17:1-6 uses this name, and God then declares that She will "
make you [Abraham] exceedingly fruitful."  Genesis 28:3 also uses this theme, and says: "May El Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and numerous."  The theme is continued in Gen. 35:11, where El Shaddai commands Jacob to "be fruitful and multiply."  Additional occurrences of this usage with the theme of fertility include Gen. 48:3-4, Gen. 49:25 (which notably states that God will bless the sons of Jacob with "blessings of the breast and of the womb"), and Ruth 1:20-21 (where Naomi declares that El Shaddai has deprived her of fertility).

Additionally, as Amy Jill-Levine and Douglas McKnight point out in "The Meaning of the Bible":
[T]he Spirit is grammatically feminine in Hebrew and Aramaic, although grammatically neuter in Greek.
I also find it quite interesting that the Hebrew word racham - which can mean "compassion" or "womb" - is used quite often to speak of God's compassion or mercy (see here).  Jesus uses a Greek translation of this word in Luke 6:36, when he commands his followers to "be compassionate/merciful, just as your Father is compassionate/merciful."  One wonders, given the etymology, if perhaps he might have used "Mother" here, were it not for the patriarchal society he was in.
Rodger Kamenetz notes in "The Jew in the Lotus":
Before reading the Torah, Jews pray to “Av Harakhamim,” the “Merciful Father.” The root of rakhamim, or mercy, is rekhem - womb. Av Harakhamim could be translated, our Wombly Father, our Motherly Father.

This word for "compassion" is highly suggestive - it suggests that God's love is like the unconditional love a mother has for the baby in her womb.  She nurtures this life with her own life, and carries it with her wherever she goes.  She feels its every hiccup and twitch with great excitement.  Even the English form of this word helps us to understand this, as it literally means "to feel with" - we are called by Jesus to feel with others, and to nurture them with a womb-like love.  It is this type of love that Paul speaks of in I Cor. 9:19-22, where he declares that he has "made [himself] a slave to all", become as one under the law for those living under the law, become as one outside the law for those outside the law, become weak for those who are weak, and has "become all things to all people."  Paul is speaking of the power of empathy

Paul is not saying here that he has become wishy-washy - only living according to standards when they are convenient.  Rather, he is talking about seeing through the eyes of the other - understanding their point of view, and then speaking with their language.  Paul tried to understand the mindset of those he evangelized - he could have lazily demanded that they come to him and learn everything they could about his culture, but instead he tried to understand their culture, and translate the truth of Jesus into their cultural language.  To truly win someone over with the self-emptying love of Christ, we need to enter into the doubts of others and understand why they doubt, and then gently prod them towards the hope we have.  

The Tree of Life

We've spoken so far about the concept of creation through emanation.  Before I go on, I should note that Kabbalah builds off of what may be an unfamiliar concept to Christians - the concept that the pattern of creation followed the pattern of Torah like a blueprint - the Genesis Rabbah states:
The Torah was to God, when He created the world, what the plan is to an architect when he erects a building.
In the Kabbalistic tradition, there is a concept that the number 10 represents the Tree of Life, which they often refer to as the Tree of Sephirot. Sephirot literally means "emanations", and in the Kabbalistic conception is thought of as vessels into which divine light is poured. Do you recall the oil lamp analogy from the section on the Image of God?  Kabbalah has built a very interesting theological concept around the 10 emanations - or 10 manifestations - of God which are diagrammed as the Tree of Life, and thought of as a model for understanding what the "Image of God" is at a mataphysical level.  In other words, the Kabbalistic model of the Tree of Life can be thought of as a way to ponder consciousness itself.  Additionally, the model may be thought of as a way to contemplate how one may enter into deeper consciousness.

To understand these emanations, we must understand that they merely understand them as symbols or names - and names are just words that point to something.  In other words, they have a healthy understanding for the idea that we must not become too attached to the word, or we will not see the greater truth of what it is pointing to.

Click to embiggen
The diagram of the Tree of Life is often laid out overtop of the human body with the crown above the head (as in the picture above), representing the expanded consciousness of the Divine nature which we are all growing towards (note here the similarity to the Hindu concept of chakra, and the way this is diagrammed).  It should also be noted that the diagram is often laid over an upside down tree with the roots in heaven and the fruits below. 

As an interesting side note - this Tree is produced through a pattern of drawing a circle, and then using various points on the original circle as center points for more circles with the same diameter:

Going back to the original diagram - the top triad of sephirah (singular for sephirot - and the top triad being composed of the circles marked 1, 2, and 3) is called the supernal triad (celestial, or heavenly).  The middle triad - the circles marked 4, 5, and 6 - is called the moral triad.  The the triad at the bottom - the circles marked 7, 8, and 9 - is called the action triad.  

I will begin at the top of the diagram and explain the meaning of each sephirah:

Keter - Crown
The top sephirah - keter - is the divine spark, will, or soul.  It hovers just above the person’s head, representing a higher energy (above consciousness), and was often depicted within paintings as a halo.  The physical crown made with gold and jewels was supposed to signify that a king’s power came from a higher power - whether they deserved it or not!  The mystics would often speak of how every organism - even a blade of grass - has an angel hovering over it saying "Grow!  Grow!", and this is a good description of the function of keter, as it represents a divine will urging us towards greater life.  As Christians talk of how God speaks to us with a still, small voice, it should be no trick to connect this idea with the idea of keter.  The divine name given to Moses - “I will be what I will be” - speaks of the kind of will that keter represents, as Christians believe that God’s divine will is the source of all.  And just as - whether or not you are Christian - you must believe that all mankind ultimately came from one biological source, the Jewish Mystics believe that all that is spiritual came from one Divine source as well.  This is why they speak of our souls as a spark of the Divine.  

From a strictly secular viewpoint, before one has a thought, there is a societal pattern through which one has been shaped which governs our thinking.  Science has proven that even the structures of our languages themselves cause people to think in different ways.  But as all too often societal thinking patterns restrict our thinking, spiritual mystics seek to free the mind to thinking outside of them in order to discover higher truths.  On this note, consider how the English word "contemplation" is literally con-template - bringing a new template within yourself that helps us to challenge the other templates we have internalized.  To enter into the sphere of keter - no easy task - is to completely empty oneself of all false internal templates in order to experience pure Being.  This is a very difficlt task, but has reportedly been experienced after long periods of meditation.

Chokmah - Wisdom 

Chokmah is the first emanation of light; spark of inspiration; seed of thought.  Jewish mystics take very seriously the fact that Prov. 8:22-31 says that Wisdom was the first of the creations - the first emanation after the Divine will.  This is why it is placed just below keter

This sephirah is associated with creativity.  This is the realm in which revelation occurs and we get flashes of insight

But how does one achieve wisdom, since we know it must be deeper than a "gut feeling"?  In "
Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians", Tamar Frankel writes:
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan comments on the famous rabbinic saying, “Who is wise? He who learns from every man” (Avot 4.1):“It is on the level of Wisdom that all men are one.”
Here we see the Jewish wisdom inviting us to see that a soul is not limited to being an individual essence, but is truly connected to all other souls, and could experience this more fully if it would just open itself up to this level of existence.  Even if we deny this, it is true - because the only reason anyone knows anything or behaves the way they do is because of the people throughout their lives whom they have come into contact with and whom have influenced them.  We would not even exist if it were not for other people.

In "The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution, and the Power of Love", Ilia Delio defines Wisdom this way:

Wisdom is knowledge deepened by love. It is found in the experience of the sacred and the inner heart. It brings to light the depths of things in a way that both reveals and veils the divine mystery. The wise person thinks with the heart.

Binah - Understanding
Binah is nourishing the spark into a flame; nourishing the seed into an organismBinah is associated with templates or patterns of reason.  This is where wisdom becomes form.  Jewish mystics will often use feminine pronouns here, as in biology the father brings forth the seed (chokmah) and the mother nourishes that seed until it takes form (binah). 
Here once more we see the radical equality of Jewish mysticism, as chokmah and binah are referred to as man and woman, father and mother - as early Kabbalist Moses Cordovero wrote in "Or Ne’erav".

Note the emphasis on love from Psalm 49:3, which indicates that understanding comes not from the intellect, but from the heart - the place where love resides.
  This reminds me once more of the picture of Gen. 1:2, where the spirit of God (which is love - see I John 4:8, 16) hovers over the waters of chaos to form understanding.  The book of Revelation ends with "the sea was no more" (21:1) - as the sea is the symbol of chaos, this is an indication that the writer of Revelation believes that in the end, understanding will fill the cosmos, and there will be no more chaos.  Often the first three sephirot are drawn with another diagram where each is inside of the other, to illustrate how there is no separation between them, but rather, they each flow into the others.

In between the top triad and the middle triad is drawn another sephirah - da'at - which is often drawn right on or above the head, as you can see in the big diagram above, or the one below (you will note that the version below seems to have flipped the right and left sides):

Da'at - Knowledge
Da'at is unifying and connecting knowledge.  Note that this is the same term used when the Bible speaks of a man "knowing" his wife - knowledge is not supposed to be thought of as the Westerners commonly see it, where we have completely externalized that which we know.  But rather, the Eastern view makes this into an intimate sort of knowledge where we are connected with that which we know, and see it as a part of ourselves.  With knowledge comes the awareness of our limits - knowing implies the limitation and finitude of the knower, the known, and the act of knowing itself.  This recognition is necessary in order to achieve the connectedness that is so different between Eastern "knowing" and Western "knowing". 

The difference between Eastern "knowing" and Western "knowing" can be illustrated through the history of the "University".  The very word "University" hints at the interconnectedness of knowledge, and one of the first "Universities" was the 12th century School of Chartres - in this school, various forms of knowledge were taught in connection to others.  In "The Sacred Cosmos", Peter Ellard writes about the methods of this school:

Liberal arts are used as a way for humanity to understand the cosmos, both on the local and universal level, and it is through the knowledge obtained in the process that one is led to knowledge of God.
This form of study was rooted in the understanding of the word "Cosmos" itself - this term was originally coined by Greek philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato to describe the logic, order, structure, and interrelatedness of the universe.  In their minds, all-that-is exists in a harmonious whole - and thus all knowledge must be harmonized as well.

But in modern universities, we segment off specialities, and students within these specialized forms of knowledge find it very hard to understand each other (sometimes even to respect each other - as scientists will often look down on philosophers and theologians will scoff at both).  In this way, knowledge has been broken off into chunks that are not seen as related, but are in fact often seen as in conflict with each other.

Thomas Merton writes in "Love and Living" about the modern University:

It mass produces uneducated graduates who are unfit for anything except to take part in an elaborate and complete artificial charade which they call ‘life.’
In "The Unbearable Wholeness of Being", Ilia Delio continues this thought:
Our universities have become fragmented silos of specialties where no two people speak the same language on any given day. Students are encouraged to succeed in their studies, not to contemplate truth, as if success is the goal of study. If contemporary education is failing the cosmos, it is because we have lost the integral relationship between living and loving. Unless we change the way we think, we will not change the way we act. Our mechanized world of mechanized systems with mechanized humans can no longer continue. We are fragmenting fast.
What our modern system of education effectively does is to encourage people to impose the assumptions of their biased views upon the world, rather than allowing new observations to raise questions, and living within the tension of those questions as one moves closer to the whole-ness of true knowledge, which is to enter into the Being of life.  Coupled with Capitalism, society has turned this system of education into a marketplace for bias - pick your brand of bias and our market has a product for you!

To return to the contemplation of da'at - note also that Jewish mystics often speak of this sephirah - and all that is below it - as being another level from the other three at the top.  They use the analogy of how in the Creation story, God separated the waters below from the waters above by a thin line we translate in English as the "firmament".  Consider how Christians and Jews alike often speak of "piercing the veil".  So the separation between
da'at and understanding is a very thin veil we sometimes pierce.  This is why da'at is drawn faintly in the diagram above, symbolizing the veil itself.  Note also how this circle is drawn as a much smaller circle, and the lines between the sephirot are drawn to connect all the outer sephirot with tifuretDa’at, and the sephirot below, are connected to finite experience, while the three levels above are connected to that which is infinite.  In other words, what is above da'at is considered limitless, but what is below is actually referred to as midot, which literally means "measures", signifying that what is below has limits (these sephirah actually limit each other, too, as will be demonstrated).

Da'at is also associated with study and meditation - as this is viewed as the way to continue expansion into the realm of Spirit.

Below this, there are "opposites" - but while this can be a useful way of thinking, we must learn to stop seeing things in this way, and see how they balance each other out.  We must see how generosity and restraint balance each other out for healthy living, for example.  The way the diagram is laid out shows how what is in the center connects the "opposites" and acts as a unifying force.  The levels below may also be seen as dominant personality traits of people - as Moses Cordovero wrote in "Or Ne’erav":

The Righteous are capable of becoming a vehicle for the sefirot, through the mystery of the emanation of their souls, their actions in this world, and their inclination toward one side and toward one of the sefirot.

- Mercy, Kindness, Lovingkindness

Chesed is expansiveness through lovingkindness, divine grace, and universal support.  Chesed is also associated with divine love through empathy and support.

Geburah/gevurah - Restraint 

Geburah is discipline, limitation, and strength of character.There is an old story  that illustrates restraint well - in the story, a sage came to a master and asked to be accepted into the master’s society.  The master asked if he had achieved equanimity - the sage asked what he meant, and the master replied: "If one man is praising you and another is insulting you, are the two equal in your eyes or not?"  The point is that we must learn to see how those who "insult" us are teachers!  (See 2 Sam. 16:10-13)  We often speak of darkness as being the force which resists the light of God - and this can be very useful language.  You will find me doing the same as this series progresses.  However, we ought to caution ourselves and realize that without darkness, light has no meaning!

These two sephirot - chesed and geburah - are referred to by many names, but the important idea is to see how they balance each other out.  We can think of them as expanding and contracting, or even unifying and separating forces - and thus these sephirot are actually foundational to life itself!  I often write about how we need unity, but it is important to note that without separation life would not exist!  Cells must separate for life to expand.  A baby must be separated from her mother’s womb for new life to occur.  And this is how we defeat the dualism that is so prevalent in Western thought.  And this leads straight to the connecting sephirah:

Tifuret - Beauty / Vision / Higher Splendor
is the harmonic balance of tendencies - the "bolt" that unites and binds all of the sephirot below the veil.  Note how this sephirah is laid overtop of the heart on a human torso - all the upper sephirot flow into tifuret, and all the lower
sephirot emanate into this level as well.  Binah understanding resides in the right side of the head as well as the right side of the heart - we can use this concept to meditate on how many forms of Christianity have become unbalanced by making religion entirely about beliefs, rather than action within the world.  The heart is seen as being above the emotions, but the emotions flow into it - so it can be seen as "passion", but not in an emotional sense.  Rather, it is a balanced sense of passion that is aware of higher purpose - it is being "centered". 

Note how quite often our questions arise out of a deep sense that there is a higher purpose.  We intuitively know when things are wrong, because beauty is absent when things become unbalanced.

Because we have lost sight of the importance of beauty in our Western culture, dominion  has been the model of thought.  But this is now coming into question - in a short time span, thousands of species have gone extinct and still thousands more are threatened by the effects of the chemicals we spew into the atmosphere, and the concrete we pour over earth where life once grew.  No matter how unbalanced the distribution of wealth becomes, those in power tell us to have faith in the System - but we’ve forgotten how nature gives us models, and in the human body, when a cell gobbles up all the resources and grows in ways that crowds out the other cells, it is called cancer.  Beauty has been sidelined, and as a result we have reached a place where total extinction is now a real danger.  To solve these problems, we must elevate beauty as a priority of existence over the cold, rational model of capitalism which elevates efficiency and profitability as the highest priority.

Why is balance so much a part of the concept of beauty in this model?  Consider how, in the very beginning of the universe, the conditions necessary to one day give rise to life were present, because the expansiveness of the Big Bang was met by the balancing force of the restraint of gravity - which was necessary for galaxies to form from the dust!  If the expanding force of the Big Bang was not balanced by the restraint of gravity, life would not have occurred. 

Likewise, resistance is necessary for growth.  Too much expansion in our life is cancer (both literally and figuratively).  Expansion can be so fulfilling that we seek it out like a drug, and then it becomes ego-inducing - but restraint is the balancing force that holds our ego back and tempers our pride with humility.  

Similarly, the Buddha is said to have taught (from "The Gospel of Buddha"):
There are two extremes, O bhikkhus, which the man who has given up the world ought not to follow-the habitual practice, on the one hand, of self-indulgence which is unworthy, vain and fit only for the worldly-minded and the habitual practice, on the other hand, of self-mortification, which is painful, useless and unprofitable.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is a legend in Judaism that says that before Eve was split from Adam’s side, Adam contained both male and female, and in this state he was a towering being who stood so tall that he was able to see the ends of the earth.  The interpretation, as it relates to the Tree of Life, is that the balance between expansion and restraint causes vision.  This can be seen metaphorically as a call to restore the balance between expansion and restraint in order to create beauty, and if we restore this vision - this higher purpose - we can heal the world.

As in the diagram of the Tree of Life, when the two forces of expansion and restraint, darkness and light, compassion and discipline, order and chaos meet each other, the sephirot at the middle of the two is born: the
sephirot of beauty (tifuret).

One way to think of this is to understand how love encompasses both sides of this duality, and thus the distinction between "love" and "lovingkindness" - because sometimes, to love someone means we hold back and allow them to be.  Sometimes we must allow the child to do things for herself - that she might learn how to walk on her own without the parent holding her hands.  Sometimes, we must allow someone who is angry with us to be apart from us in order that healing might occur.  Sometimes we must allow people to do things which we consider mistakes, because obsessively restraining them only makes them want to get out from under our control all the more.  And so both sides of this level of the Tree are encompassed in love.  Love recognizes that there are healthy boundaries, and when we do this, those boundaries do not harden to become walls of separation but are thin veils which may be pierced just as the veil which may be pierced by da'at reaching into the heavenly realms.

Through love, we can even see how both order and chaos are necessary.  Since the discovery of Quantum Mechanics - which we delved into earlier in this series - it has been noted that without a little chaos, life might not have been possible.  If everything were completely predictable, there would not be life.  

Because we are stuck within linear time, we don’t often see how the experiences we call "bad" can ultimately have very good results.  For instance, the nation of Israel developed a compassionate model of community because of their time in slavery.  Often, the grief of losing a beloved family member drives people to make changes in society in order to prevent the conditions from which their tragedy occurred in the first place.  This is why the Bible speaks of the process of purification through the analogy of the
refiner’s fire (see Mal. 3:3, Heb. 12:29, I Pet. 1:7 for a few examples).  

We can also think of the middle and upper levels of the Tree as the Revealed and the Concealed.  If God revealed all of His glory, we would not be able to contain this knowledge.  Some say that we would be incinerated.  So God lovingly conceals much of Him-Her-It-self, and gives us more as we grow.  This is why it has been said that "Lord" (usually translated from Elohim) and "God" (from YHVH or Adoni, which is a replacement for YHVH) can be seen as the personal (immanent) and impersonal (transcendent) sides of God.
Tamar Frankiel writes on this (from "Kabbalah"):
Lord is the personal aspect of God that intervenes in history and our lives, while God is God as manifest in nature and law, balancing everything in cosmic justice. Y-H-V-H is Expansiveness, God is Restraint.

The next level of the Tree of Sephirot has to do with actualization - or practice - and once again there is a balance between two sephirot, with a third sephirot in between representing that balance.  Tifuret-Beauty functions here as another split between vertical levels - from Tifuret-Beauty upwards, humans interact with God as He is made manifest in the world, and from Tifuret-Beauty downwards, humans interact with the world in order to manifest God’s presence more actively into the world.  In other words, the areas below Tifuret-Beauty are the ways in which humans act as God’s ambassadors and strive to direct the world towards the manifestation of God’s Kingdom in this role.  The two sides of the next level also run parallel to Chesed-Expansiveness and Gevurah-Restraint, so it is important to note the similarities.

Netzach - Perseverance / Victory
Netzach is energetic initiative and stamina.  It is drive.

Netzach-Perseverance can be viewed positively, as the drive to achieve greater tasks/goals, and imitates Divine Expansiveness.  Netzach can drive us to achieve amazing things in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  We see Netzach in the natural drive of plants to emerge everywhere (even amongst the cracks of the rocks), in the animals which have adapted to the frigid climate of the arctic regions, the ingenuity of the bees in designing and constructing hives, and many other ways.

Netzach-Perseverance can also be viewed negatively as the drive to survive, or unrestrained desire (which is called lust in religious language).  This is because Netzach without the balance of Hod-Surrender causes us to become more instinctive (like an animal) than human.  The extreme negative of Netzach - where it becomes completely unbalanced because of an extreme lack of its counterpart - is called Domination (as in the Domination System I have written so much about). 

So Netzach can become very negative, but it is important to note how this is merely a perversion of the good due to an imbalance.

Hod - Surrender / Submission /Splendour
Hod is accepting; yielding - note here the similarity to humilityHod-Surrender is learning to say "let it be".  This is an area that Western forms of Christianity seem to be sadly lacking, and I believe it has much to do with our chauvinistic form of Christianity.  If we learned to treasure the model of Mary saying "let it be to me according to your word", as a model for Christian life (this is something the Catholics seem to understand much better), perhaps we can find more balance.

Hod-Surrender imitates Divine Restraint (
geburah), and is the inclination to yield to another or withdraw from conflict.  It is also our ability to rely or depend on others in order to work together as a community towards greater goals which no one person could achieve on his or her own.  We see this in nature as well, as there is a symbiosis between the animals and plant kingdoms - animals breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide while plants do the opposite, and plants rely on the pollination of bees while rewarding the bee kingdom with the materials to manufacture honey.  This symbiosis is only made possible by surrender

We can think of this also in terms of sacrifice - love often demands that we make sacrifices for the greater good in order that others may survive.  But this means that we must surrender our ego - our instinctive drive to survive and assert ourselves.  Hod-Surrender is the level at which we are able to understand the needs and feelings of other creatures in order to balance out our own visions and reshape them in ways that will contribute to life outside of our own.

Hod-Surrender also has a negative side as well, however.  When surrender is not balanced, it manifests through negative feelings of fear, shame, and victimization.  Think of the phrase "fight or flight" - when the two sephirot of Hod-Surrender and Netzach-Perseverance become imbalanced, we will often shift back and forth between the negative sides of the two and will either act out by attacking others (fight - the negative form of netzach) or hiding in unhealthy forms of withdrawal (flight - the negative form of hod).  But when these two levels work together in harmony, humans can create beautiful things - families become clans, which become tribes, which become societies, which become civilizations.  Life becomes more than merely finding sustenance and people rise to the next level of the Tree by creating art, music, story, poetry, and dance in order to enhance life’s joys.  When there is a balance between netzach and hod, we also are able to find ways to create technologies, and this enables us to do even more.  All of this is only possible when perseverance and surrender create cooperative and collaborative relationships connecting life to life. 

We must constantly be looking to create greater connections, however, or the smaller groups we form may be harming other groups through ignorance or carelessness.  We have seen this pattern time and time again - as humans have gone from one stage to the next in our societies, there are those who become marginalized.  We must seek the ways in which our organizational structures cause people to be left by the wayside, and seek to reduce this and care for those we have harmed - whether this came through ignorance or not.  When the energies of
perseverance and surrender are not striving towards greater levels of the connectivity of life (which can be thought of as the next level of the tree - the level at which Tifuret-Beauty connects to Chesed-Expansiveness and Gevurah-Restraint), they begin to decay and become corrupt.  We must always seek the higher vision of Tifuret-Beauty which allows us to see more in order to guard our practices against this corruption.

One way to think of this is by realizing that Tifuret-Beauty must flow both ways vertically in order for us to achieve a healthy balance - earth must reach towards heaven and heaven reaches towards earth (or else it is not truly heaven).  It is possible to be too heavenly minded to be of earthly good, just as the opposite is also true (too earthly minded to be of heavenly good).  So in all things we must seek balance.

Bringing Heaven to Earth is where the last sephirah comes into play:

Yesod - Foundation
is processing and transmitting the energies of the previous sephirot through orthopraxis.  It is the balance that is achieved between the Netzach-Perseverence drive to live and expand and the Hod-Surrender drive to pull back and respond to others.  This sephirah can also be thought of as transmission - transmission between life forces.  We transmit our experiences to one another and create foundational structures where our collective life experience is built upon. 

is the level in which memory resides as well.  The declaration in Ex. 20:5-6 - where it is said that children will experience the aftereffects of their parents' sin to the third and fourth generation, but God will show love to a thousand generations - is often interpreted as God forgetting sins much more quickly than God's practice of kindness.  Here, we can note how remembering can be thought of as "re-member-ing", as this would be a far healthier way to recall memories - demonstrated by this principle of keeping the good and discarding the bad.

We can understand how Netzach-Perseverence and Hod-Surrender can be connected through Yesod-Foundation and still be displaying their negative side.  This would occur when a society has become withdrawn into itself and is no longer striving to reach upwards for the beauty of greater consciousness through greater unity.  A society like this has become tribal and only tells stories of persecution and aggression.

The lower triangle can be thought of as yearning and the upper as clarifying.  We must constantly connect the two triangles and use them for a refining process - they each clarify and build upon each other.  And we must be aware that when religions are pointing us to foundations of fear, shame, resentment, and desire for vengeance - then they are not true religions (literally "re-ligamenting") but are forces of separation that contribute to the Domination System.

The final sephirah is pictured as being rooted in the ground - as the final connection between Heaven and Earth.  This sephirah is called malkhut, which can be thought of as either manifestation or kingdom.

Malkhut - Manifestation / Kingdom
Malkhut-Manifestation is connected with Shekinah, and is also spoken of as Kingship.  It represents the final impression made on the physical world: the divine Presence, immanent in the world.  Malkhut-Manifestation is all that we see, hear, and touch.  The mystical view is that what is unseen is implied by what is seen in
Malkhut-Manifestation.  By pondering the mysteries of what we find in Malkhut-Manifestation, and seeking to apply the lessons we learn through these exercises towards greater connection, we may reach towards Heaven.

To apply this personally (to an individual person), we may observe an individual's manifestation (their way of being in the world) and discern their character - even discerning their inner wounds.  Outward behavior always leaves clues (for a careful observer/listener) as to what is going on inside.

It is in
Malkhut-Manifestation that we complete the cycle of thought, feeling, and action - because this is where we consciously act.  Through manifestation, we set vibrations into motion that ripple out and touch others.  And thus, even if we try to deny our unity with all things, it is still there.  So we should always seek to make our manifestations harmonious.
The language of Kingdom brings up another point - the two sides of the tree, with restraint/surrender and expansion/perseverence can be thought of in terms of being conservative and being liberal.   It would do much good if we could heal these terms that have been used so often for political concepts that do not match their dictionary definition, and to see how we can find a balanced view somewhere in between the two poles (more on that here).
We can try to deny our role in Kingdom, but even if we do this, we will be participating - in the unbalanced form or the negative form of Hod-Surrender.  But we also see the other side of this in our politics - the negative form of Netzach-Perseverence that becomes Domination - in the obscenely partisan nature of people’s communication during and even after the elections, as well as the talk of violent revolution.  To correct this, we must correctly understand responsibility - responsibility is connected to the ability to respond.  This implies that we are a player that is part of a larger whole, and must act with this in mind.  We are all responsible to one another and for one another, and we must seek this connection without straying into forms of negative
Netzach-Perseverence that becomes Domination or negative Hod-Surrender (which supports Domination by passivity).

Here I would like to note how Kabbalists often conceptualize the Tree of Sephirot as a pattern for life by drawing smaller Trees within each Sephirot - symbolizing how kingdom is a greater connectivity of people, who are all made in the image of God like parts of the hologram.  And through this symbol we can see how unity is not the loss of individuality - true unity respects individuality and sees how people balance each other out just like the Sephirot on the tree.


It may seem very difficult to conceptualize how we are to play our own part in the manifestation of Kingdom.  If that is the case, we must remember that the word that is often used to describe this process is halacha (the walking) - and walking is done one step at a time.

One might ask where to start on the Tree.  We do not have to think of the Tree in terms of "up" and "down" - and as I mentioned before, Kabbalists speak of how God's perspective on the matter is different than ours.  But more importantly, we must understand that the division between upper and lower is artificial and merely a conceptual tool to help us realize the Unity of God.  In our lives, growth is not a two dimensional up/down process, either - but like a tree, as we grow in stature, we must also grow in strength and fill out our trunk and branches.  We must go in both directions to experience God, because God is the continual Beginning, and thus we must seek the inner Restraint and the outer Expansiveness - we must be present in the Earth and in Heaven to experience God!

Additionally, we may conceptualize the process of spiritual growth by using the circles that are initially drawn in order to form the Tree to draw a spiral connecting all the sephirot - this can help us to conceptualize the spiritual cycle.  This may be thought of - to go along with halacha (walking) - as a process of running and returning.  To put this another way - as we go out into the world to apply our spiritual growth, we learn more that we must bring back into ourselves, and this must be applied to the process of continual growth.

I find it interesting that there is a common practice connected to the Tree of Sephirot in Judaism - it is called "Counting the Omer".  During the 49 days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot (the original Pentecost), a practitioner will spend each day contemplating how a personality characteristic connected to the Tree manifests itself in their life, and how they might grow this characteristic.  The number 49 comes from the 7 sephirah in the middle and lower levels, as well as the connections in between them.  As an example of how this meditative practice works, on a day when Chesed - Expansiveness/Lovingkindness/Generosity - is being contemplated, one might ask: how am I generous?  How does it feel when I am generous?  How does it feel when I am not generous?  When this practice is adopted, we can essentially become our own therapists (understand that this is not to suggest that anyone should not consider using a therapist - we all need connection).

It is interesting to not that the word "rule" most likely comes from the Hebrew word "regel", which means foot (the Latin for "rule" is regula, which resembles regel).  Thus we see that rules are meant to be guides for our walk.

But it is important to note that when the rules of the lower realm become disconnected from the higher spiritual realms, they become superficial and empty - like a museum looted of its treasures.  The rules of Kingship must lead to Tifuret-Splendor and beyond, or it is like mistaking the finger for the moon it is pointing to.

The Kabbalists have a beautiful way of illustrating what true Kingship is like in the Kingdom of God - one that harmonizes very well with the picture Jesus presents.  The Hebrew letters of King David’s name (English equivalent: DVD) mean "empty and empty" or "poor and poor" - holding nothing to himself (a way of thinking about kenosis).  David represents the human being as servant of God.  In contrast, the archetypal enemy of Ezekiel is Gog (Ezek. 38), and the letters of this name mean "full and full" - meaning that this archetypal character is full of himself even after he has been shown the reality of God.  This speaks in a spiritual sense of the one who refuses to let go of his ego even in the face of the infinite, and thus ultimately nullifies himself by denying himself the fullness of life and sinking into decay as a result.

In closing, the following comes from the Perkei Avot Mishnah:

Ben Zoma says, Who is wise? He who learns from every person, as it is said, “From all my teachers I grew wise” (Psalm 119:99).

Who is strong? He who subdues his personal inclination, as it is said, “He who is slow to anger is better than the strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city” (Proverbs 16:32).

Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot, as it is said, “When you eat of the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy and all is well with you” (Psalm 128:2) […]

Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is said, “For those who honor Me I will honor, and those who scorn Me shall be degraded” (1 Samuel 2:30).

Next Chapter: Concluding Thoughts for "Book I"