by Jack Courtis
Of course kabala is very interesting, but what does it mean? How are we to understand it in the 21st century? What relevance does it have for our lives?
The key is the concept of self-transformation. This is what kabala is about, no matter which way we look at it. So how are we to apply kabala to ourselves in order to transform our lives? The clue is the number pattern from Genesis Ch 1 (1: 3: 7:12) and the hierarchical way in which it operates. ONE is at the top and 12 is at the bottom. Here is an interpretation of what this means.
There are 4 levels of reality which correspond to the number pattern and which are explained by kabala:
We begin at this point because the level of Action is here and now. We begin from where we are. At this level, the process of transformation focuses on our behaviour as ordinary human beings. The key concept is discipline. Traditionally, there are 12 spiritual disciplines: 4 inner, 4 outer and 4 that are group oriented. Let us examine them, starting with the 4 inner. The word "God" will now be used frequently as a convenient shorthand. It is not limited to the Christian god. It is meant to include every conception of the divine.
Our society is dedicated to instant self-gratification. There can be no more despised spiritual discipline than fasting. What purpose does it have? Even the Church hardly mentions it. Perhaps we can approach the subject by clarifying what it is not. Fasting is not dieting - that is about vanity and egoism. Fasting is not a hunger strike - that is a political act because it is essentially about the exertion of personal power to force change in other people's behaviour. It is not about being anorexic. Fasting is about sensible control. There is more to it than food and drink. There is also the control of what we see, hear and read. Fasting is about self-knowledge and ultimately about knowledge of God. Fasting is difficult but once mastered, sets the scene for prayer and meditation by disciplining the body and putting into proper bounds its normal loud and distracting demands.
We remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because we do not want to make the effort of study. Christ said "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set ye free" (John 8:32). Good feelings will not free us; good "vibes" will not free us, only the truth. Study as a spiritual discipline, is a specific kind of experience in which the mind concentrates on reality. Today we call this a right brain experience. Using kabalistic interpretation of the Bible as an example of the kind of study referred to, we can understand meditation as devotional and study as analytical. Study provides the objective framework within which meditation can successfully function. Contrast this with our normal lives. Because of television, we have an attention span of 7 minutes, the time between commercials. Study as a spiritual discipline demands concentrated attention for hours at a time. No wonder we do not study when we have computer games and TV.
Very simply, it is the ability to hear God's voice and obey His word. What happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space that allows inner communication. Eastern meditation empties the mind. Western meditation fills the mind. Eastern meditation leads to detachment. In Nirvana there is no God to be attached to, only union and release from personality. Western meditation is precisely aimed at oneness with God; a different approach. Our present society dislikes discipline and is geared for instant gratification. That is why meditation is so intimidating to us. It boldly calls us into the presence of God, but demands effort and sacrifice for this to be achieved. It is boring, time consuming and takes discipline. No wonder we don't like it.
Real prayer transforms us because it is the deliberate setting into motion of the hidden processes of the kosmos. Instinctively we know that to pray correctly is to change. That is why we are not serious about it. We do not want to change, so we do not pray. We pretend that we do not pray either because we do not know how, or because it does not work. We fool only ourselves. How can prayer bring change if the universe is already fixed by God's will? In real prayer we think God's thoughts, desire His desires, will His Will. Meditation attaches us to God so that through prayer we can communicate with Him. We are co-workers with God to create the future. No wonder prayer is a discipline.
We have looked at the 4 inner disciplines and now realise how closely interconnected they are. We cannot do just one alone; we must do all 4 together in order to make progress. Let us now see the 4 outer disciplines. Whereas the inner disciplines can to some degree be entirely private, the outer make us instantly recognisable and liable to attack, scorn and ridicule. This is why.
Simplicity is freedom. Duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear. Simplicity is an inward reality that manifests outwardly in how we live. Simplicity aims at inner unity and this liberates us outwardly. We speak truthfully and directly. We no longer crave status and position. When we achieve the inner centre we are no longer distracted by the psychotic and fragmented world we live in. Without the unity within, covetousness we call ambition; hoarding we call prudence; greed we call industry. The consumer society feeds insecurity and thrives on what it feeds.
However it needs to be said that asceticism is not the same as simplicity. Asceticism renounces possessions. Simplicity puts them in proper perspective because it reorients our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us.
Simplicity is the most visible of all the disciplines and therefore brings us under attack because it directly challenges the vested interests of our society. It makes us identifiably different because we are free from anxiety without being irresponsible. We share ourselves without the expectation of recognition or reward. We stand firm as the world collapses. No wonder society sees us as a threat.
It must be said - solitude is not loneliness. This is important because loneliness frightens us. Our fear of being alone drives us to noise and crowds. Loneliness is inner emptiness. Solitude is inner fulfillment. It is a state of mind and heart. It is inner attentiveness. Solitude has outer manifestations. There is the freedom to hear the "still small voice". This allows us to be with others meaningfully. Our words are few, but when we speak, we have something to say. We must also have silence to enable us to listen. The purpose of solitude and silence is to enable us to see and hear. Silence does not mean no noise. It means control. Thus we know when to speak and when not to speak. If we are silent when we should speak, we are cowards. If we speak when we should be silent, we are fools. If we take solitude seriously, we will have the experience of the "dark night of the soul". It sets us free, because it allows for inner transformation. It is terrifying and unimaginably painful. However, the result is sensitivity and compassion. This is freedom from the fear of being alone and from the emptiness inside us.
It is easy to despise this discipline. In this age we have rights but no responsibilities. We submit to no one. What possible transformative qualities can submission have? We think of a submissive person as being weak and cowardly. Perhaps as dependent or manipulative. This is a misunderstanding. Submission is about self-denial. But this too is despised, even though Christ said "if any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).
We would rather speak of self-fulfillment and self-actualisation, than of self-denial. We think it means self hatred and self rejection. The measure of our error is the degree to which self-denial leads to freedom. It means the freely accepted re-orientation of our relationships. We are free moral agents and have personal moral responsibility. Submission means acting responsibly. Self-denial means getting our relationships right by placing the interests of them above our own.
True service does not involve self-righteousness. It requires a correct relationship with our inner being. Self-righteous service requires external rewards. It seeks applause and recognition. True service is hidden. Self-righteous service is greatly concerned with results. True service is free of the need to calculate results. It serves friends and enemies. Self-righteous service chooses who to help. True service does not choose. Self-righteous service is temporary. True service is a life style. It acts when needed. Self-righteous service is insensitive. True service listens patiently and waits in silence.
Self-righteous service is egotistical. It is a subtle and destructive form of manipulation. True service binds, heals and builds. Service leads to humility. Nothing disciplines our ego like service and nothing transforms our desires like hidden service.
But will people take advantage of us? This is the difference between service and being a servant. If we choose service we are still in charge. There is great freedom in this. Voluntary service is a great joy. And what about letting others serve us? This is more difficult than we imagine, because we often have a self -image of worthlessness.
Service is the reasoned concern for the well being of all.
The first 8 disciplines have been concerned with the individual. If we can devote time and effort to them, the transformative process must take place. It is automatic. Then we become a living catalyst for the transformation of others by taking part in the group disciplines.
At the heart of God is the desire to give and to forgive. We cannot be forgiven unless we first confess. It is important to understand that we are not speaking of psychological therapy. The transformation of our inner being involves an objective change in our relationship with God and a subjective change in us. It brings about a healing and a transformation of our spirit.
Confession is difficult for us in this age. We live in a secular society. After all, now that God is dead, psychiatrists have replaced Him, haven't they? We cannot bear to reveal our failures and shortcomings to others. Therefore we hide ourselves from one another behind a veil of hypocrisy and lies. Fear and pride cling to us. If we trusted each other sufficiently to confess and forgive, we would release the power that transforms and heals. This is why this is a group discipline.
When we confess to another we are communicating at a deep level, we are no longer alone. We experience the presence of God in the other person. We see ourselves as we truly are without self-deceit. Self-knowledge is a great transformer, but we need each other's help. This is how we begin to learn we are brothers and sisters. Our relationships have been transformed.
To worship is to experience reality, to touch life. It is to know the divine in the community. Worship is the human response to God's love for us. Forms and rituals do not produce worship, but nor does the disuse of forms and rituals. Until God touches our spirit, we cannot react in true worship.
How difficult all this is for our society. If we do not believe that God is dead, we certainly think that He is far away and unresponsive. In these circumstances it is embarrassing to worship as part of a group. And yet, this is how we develop our relationship with God and with the divine in each other. This is why worship is a group discipline.
To think rightly about God is, in an important sense, to have everything right. Just so, to think wrongly about God, is to have everything wrong. We desperately need to see who God is, to receive His mercy and love. When we achieve this, worship comes naturally. It is not forced and is not even embarrassing. It is a deep inner fellowship where the divine in each person touches all. We transform from the many to the ONE. To worship truly, is to transform totally.
Worship is the deliberate and determined experience of reality.
Guidance can be experienced after prayer, fasting and worship have been mastered to some extent. Since it is a group discipline, guidance has to be the result of group effort in the other disciplines. It is a group experiencing and knowing the mind of God. But be warned, this is not about committee meetings and majority rule; it is about unanimity. It is about unity of purpose not mere agreement that is the result of bargaining.
To know the mind of God is to hear the voice of God. To do so as a group is very difficult.
Today, it is normal to look for a spiritual guide, usually called a "guru". Spiritual guidance emerges out of natural, spontaneous human relationships. Thus, a spiritual guide must be a person who has developed the 12 spiritual disciplines and therefore begun the process of self-transformation. Thus he (or she) can be calm in the midst of tumult and therefore be able to absorb selfishness, aggression, mediocrity and apathy around him and transform them. He will be compassionate and unshakable. The spiritual guide must first transform himself before he can transform others.
There is something about group dynamics that accelerates individual progress when the whole group moves forward under the direction of a spiritual guide. This is the most radical of the spiritual disciplines because it goes to the heart of the process of self-transformation.
Celebration is at the centre of the spiritual life. This is because that life brings freedom and new relationships with God and with others. Freedom from anxiety and care forms basis for celebration.
We find it strange to think of celebration as a spiritual discipline, but our society is characterised by apathy and pessimism, even depression. That is why we need it. Celebration brings joy into life and joy makes us strong. Without joy, all the other disciplines are dull and boring. Joy gives us the energy to keep the other disciplines going. Freedom from anxiety and care forms the basis for celebration.
In the spiritual life, joy is produced when we realise that there is an order implied in the universe and we actively immerse ourselves in that order. God's will then becomes our will and God's work becomes our work. Genuine celebration comes when we are transformed by our identification with God's will.
The group disciplines only work if we have transformed ourselves as individuals and become living catalysts for the group. To discipline ourselves to work with the group is an act of service. It makes us vulnerable and open to be hurt. But our own progress is linked to the progress of the group. We are not alone in an empty and meaningless universe. There is a vast purpose being unfolded and we are part of it.
As we transform ourselves, to that extent the kosmos is transformed. We are here because we are the agents of that transformation. There is a sense in which the kosmos needs us to be its catalyst.
Let us review the relevance of the 12 disciplines to our quest for self-transformation. Our constitution as spiritual beings involves a deep principle of unity known to the Greeks as Nous (pure mind), which integrates our spirit, soul and body. Our individual nature, whether men or women, requires the reintegration of our spiritual constitution so that self- transformation can occur. The 12 disciplines are the first stage of this process of transformation.
The 12 disciplines correlate with the 12 Single letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the 12 paths on the Tree of Life to which those letters are attributed. They also correlate with the 12 zodiacal letters of the Greek alphabet. This is the key to the Christian kabala of the first few centuries of the Common Era.