Much has been written about the Tree of Life, and it is not the intention of this post to reinvent the wheel or even discuss the symbols exhaustively. Many resources exist that will introduce the symbol, and one very useful primer is Erwin Hessle’s "Qabalistic Framework" the first chapter of his excellent book on the small cards of the Tarot.
Since Erwin has done such a fine job elucidating the Sephiroth by means of his discussion of the small cards of the Tarot, I thought that it would be useful if I explored the subject of the paths connecting the Sephiroth (to which are attributed, among other things, the Tarot trumps). If I come even close to doing half as good a job as he did with the Sephiroth, I will be most satisfied with this post (and the ones hopefully to follow) as an introduction to the subject that will get readers thinking about the Tree of Life and that will spur their own investigations.
Read on for more.
First, it will be necessary to give a brief recap of the meaning of the Sephiroth.
The negative veils – the concept of Nothing (out of which the universe came. The universe is, in one sense, pure nothing (that is, “not nothing”, which would be “something”). The entire Tree of Life is, in a sense, an elaboration of that Nothingness.
Kether (1) – The idea of creation
Chokmah (2) – The idea of motion
Binah (3) – The idea of form
Chesed (4) – Actual form (including an individual’s nature)
Geburah (5) – Actual motion (including an individual’s True Will)
Tipareth (6) – the actual individual (True Self)
~The Veil of Paroketh~
Netzach (7) – conscious emotion and desire (a distorted reflection of 5)
Hod (8) – conscious thoughts and thought-patterns (a distorted reflection of 4)
Yesod (9) – one’s internal map of the universe (including self-image, a distorted reflection of 6)
Malkuth (10) – the actual physical universe itself, the body, (or more accurately) the individual’s perception or experience of the actual universe
These ten concepts and their relationship to each other on the Tree can be used to sum up the entire universe. On the level of the individual, the Tree illustrates how the actual individual (6, the “Khabs” or “True Self” in Thelema) emerges out of the blind, impersonal forces of the universe (0-5) and becomes “clothed” in the illusion of individuality (7-10, the products of the “Khu”).
If we use the language of this symbol, Thelemic attainment is the process of piercing the Veil of Paroketh and allowing the light of Tipareth to descend unobstructed and inform the lower Sephiroth, where we live and experience reality.
For the purposes of this series of posts, I’m going to concentrate on the paths that illustrate the relationship between these concepts, and in this post I’m going to be looking at the paths that connect Sephiroth 7, 8, and 9 to 10 (the individual’s perception of the universe).
Path 32: Yesod to Malkuth
This path represents the connection between one’s internal map of the universe (including the self-image) and the universe (and perception of the universe). To Sephirah 9 is attributed the moon, an attribution that is appropriate for the self image, since the moon does not give off light of its own but merely reflects the light from the sun (the true self, 6) to varying degrees. Sometimes it reflects much light, but other times, it is only partially illuminated (and, of course, sometimes it is quite dark).
To Sephiroth 10 is attributed the element of earth, yet Malkuth contains all four elements, a crystallization of all the previous ideas of the Tree of Life, expressed as the Tetragrammaton (Yod=Chokmah=fire, Heh=Binah=water, Vav=Chesed-Yesod=air, Heh Final=Malkuth=earth…4+3+2+1=10). 10 is also the ultimate goal of the creation itself (10 = 1+0 = 1= Kether. Malkuth is in Kether and Kether is in Malkuth, but after another fashion).
The path between these Sephiroth is attributed to the Hebrew letter Tau (the letter shaped like a cross), the planet Saturn, and the Tarot card The Universe.
The path represents the process by which one’s internal map of the universe can be brought to bear on the physical world (and on one’s perception of that world). To this path we might attribute the process of coming up with an idea, imagining it, and then taking steps to bring it about in the physical world (imposing one’s ideas on the world). We might also attribute, more generally, the ways in which one’s internal map of the world shapes the way one perceives the world. It also symbolizes the ways by which our experience feeds back into the mental maps we build of the world, and it can also represent the process of taking the “first step” on the path of initiation by starting to move up the Tree, reflection on this very process that the uninitiated person takes for granted and pays no attention to.
The Universe is an appropriate card here, for obvious reasons. The Tau cross is also appropriate because it signifies life and resurrection: it is through path 32 that the self-image undergoes the continual process of dying and being reborn: as impressions move through the “feedback loop” of Sephiroth 7-10, the individual builds up a personal universe that is constantly transforming. Path 32 is the focal point for the creation of that personal universe. The rational structures of 8 and the emotions and desires of 7 pour into 9, constructing the internal universe and funneling down to the individual’s perception of self and universe (10). The danger is that this personal universe can easily become cut off from the renewing energy of the actual, external world (represented by the higher Sephiroth): the individual’s True Self, and the objective world as it actually is.
Saturn is also an appropriate attribution because it represents heavy inevitability, the ways in which the inner universe exerts powerful pressure on the individual’s perception of his environment, shaping that perception almost as inexorably as gravity shapes the motion of the planets.
The hope is that enough “light” from Tipareth (the True Self, actual reality as it really is) makes it through the Veil of Paroketh (distorted though that light may be from its journey) and get funneled down through path 32 where, though distorted even further by its journey from Yesod, may give the individual some chance of realizing the ways in which his mind has been playing the traitor and duping him.
At its best, this path represents as accurate an understanding of the universe as possible reaching the individual’s perception, and the individual using accurate perception to build increasingly accurate internal maps of the universe.
At its worst, this path represents an individual getting lost in a map that does not resemble reality at all, becoming cut off from the influence of the higher sephiroth and having one’s perception of the universe calcify into distorted ego: such ego is inflated by fantasy self-images, including (when discussing subjects such as Thelema) the self-image that one is a great “adept” or “great magician” or that one has “vanquished the ego” or “transcended reason.” One can easily be duped by the images of the Khu and end up living in a make-believe universe that increasingly diverges from the actual one. The Thelemite who styles himself “Master” of this make believe universe is Master only in his head. True Mastery consists in the ability of seeing through this illusion.
Path 29: Netzach to Malkuth
This path symbolizes the connection between one’s desires and one’s perception of the world. To Netzach is attributed to Venus, elemental fire: the burning passion of desire. Note that this is conscious desire, not the True Will, whose aspects are represented by the actual triad of 4-6. Conscious desire is a distorted reflection of the True Will, and while conscious desire can be brought into accord with the True Will, in order to better reflect that Will, conscious desire is decidedly *not* the True Will.
We may consider this path to represent the ways that desire shapes our experience, the way we act to bring about our desires, and the ways that our experience of the world feeds back into our desires. Alternately, we may consider the path to represent the process of breaking from our immediate impulse-reactions and studying where our desires come from.
To path 29 is attributed the Tarot card The Moon, the astrological sign of Pisces, and the Hebrew letter Qoph, which means “the back of the head.” These are all appropriate symbols: the tarot card The Moon represents illusion, mystery, witchcraft – the ways that desire warps and twists our perceptions, “bewitches” us, and gets us to “see things” that aren’t there (such as seeing things that are not really there in certain desired goals or people).
In its most negative form, this path might be considered to represent an aspect of the “lust of result,” insofar as that lust actually changes the way we perceive (though perhaps a better attribution for “lust of result” in its entirety is path 27, which links Netzach to the rational sphere of Hod…we’ll cover that path eventually). As a water sign, Pisces suggests the malleable nature of these illusions, their fluid nature as they refract perception. The “back of the head” suggests both how these illusions can underlie (or exist “behind”) our perceptions, shaping them, and also how these illusions can turn us around, make us see the world backwards.
It’s worth considering that desire has been studied scientifically as having an effect on direct perceptions, which is a phenomenon that we can attribute to this path. In one study, thirsty participants estimated that bottles of water were closer to them than well-hydrated participants: in other words, their desire influenced how they perceived the situation they were in. In similar ways, people who, for example, lust after co-workers may see flirtatious gestures that don’t exist (or may overestimate/misjudge innocent gestures).
Path 31: Hod to Malkuth
This path signifies the connection between the rational mind – or, more specifically, the patterns that one has inferred about the world – and one’s perception of the world. We might think of this path as representing the way that expectations, based upon these patterns, influences perception.
Perhaps the best practical example of what this path represents is the well-known paragraph that’s been floating around the internet for decades:
I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.
One doesn’t actually read by perceiving each letter in turn. One reads by taking in entire groups of letters and quickly guessing what they likely are based on expectations that are rooted in patterns that have been learned over time. It is these patterns that are attributed to Hod, and it is the way that these patterns (and the expectations based on them) influence perception that is attributed to path 31.
There are many other applications of this phenomenon: with a little application of attention, one will quickly realize that humans typically do not perceive what is actually in front of them but rather perceive through the lens of their expectations. When one drives to a familiar location (to which one has driven many times before), for example, it is very easy to do so on “autopilot,” as it were. One frequently finds that one arrives at the destination unable to remember many details about the trip.
To this path we can also attribute the confirmation bias of thinking that one’s expectations have been fulfilled. Hod (8) contains the patterns one has inferred about how the universe works, including the faulty patterns. These patterns (even the faulty ones) can be reinforced by experience (10), which is seen through the lens of those patterns. This builds up the patterns (8) and builds up an increasingly distorted vision of the world (9). It’s easy to see how quickly a single faulty pattern, arising from a mistaken rational interpretation, can snowball into an inaccurate fantasy of the world. This is just one illustration of the dangers of reason that the Book of the Law warns again: the Book is not rejecting reason as a tool for discovering truth about the world; the Book is warning against misapplications of reason.
An easy example of such faulty patterns would be religious beliefs. The religious person who is convinced that praying to St. Anthony will result in finding a lost object will have that pattern seemingly confirmed by discovering the lost object after saying the prayer. The operative word here is seemingly. It merely seems like a confirmation to the misapplied faculty of reason. In the exact same way, the “chaos magician “ who has convinced himself that masturbating over a chidish drawing will make him get extra money has that pattern seemingly confirmed when he stumbles across a little extra money on the street, or wins a small prize, or has a friend pay back a loan unexpectedly, or the thousands of other scenarios that might count as a “hit” in this case. His experience has seemingly confirmed the pattern, and unless he’s wise enough to question this rational conclusion, he might very quickly build up a very inaccurate picture of the universe in his head.
Racists, religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists, political quacks (“Trickle down economics works, I tells ya!!”), and woo-woo practitioners are all just a handful of examples of the kinds of people who rely on extremely faulty patterns. These are enormous veils over the True Will, and a student needs to work on purifying this path if he or she wishes to succeed at Thelema.
Hod is attributed to Mercury, suggesting not only the fundamental role these patterns play in our understanding of the world and our ability to communicate with it (interact with it), but the flighty and somewhat unstable (Mercurial) nature of these patterns. We would do well to remember that Mercury – that is, the god, one of whose aspects can also be attributed here – was a trickster god, so we must allow for the possibility that these seemingly reliable patterns may be playing us for fools.
To path 31 is attributed the Hebrew letter Shin (which means “tooth”), the element of Fire, and the Tarot Trump The Aeon. “Tooth” is appropriate for this path, because experience is “broken down” to be digested by the mind through this path. The attribution to fire also suggests how fire can separate elements, breaking down more complicated things into simpler elements. Experience is complicated, and the task of reducing it to patterns necessarily involves reduction.
But fire burns indiscriminately, and it can also be destructive if not properly handled, which suggests the significant dangers of this path. However, if it is mastered, fire can be used cleanse and purify, to refine the process of creating and applying these patterns. Its destructive power can be turned against those faulty structures of thought that stand between the individual and the true will. [The analogy to the “New Aeon” should be obvious to Thelemites]
A System of Delusion: The Paths Working (and Malfunctioning) Together
These paths are among the most important to grasp because a great deal of one’s everyday mental processes run through them. They illustrate the ways that individuals typically build up the delusions that keep them in mental prisons that shut out the True Will.
I gave one example of this process at the end of the post True Will and Privilege that illustrates how this illusion-making process works. I’ll partially reproduce my commentary on it here. Hopefully, it will make even more sense after this post. In this example, a poster on a discussion forum was relating how an acquaintance of his used to dismiss beggars by pushing them away and telling them to “get a job” (what a lovely fellow, eh?). Another poster correctly pointed out that the acquaintance’s dismissal is rooted not in reality but in a number of assumptions (based on patterns contained in Hod ).
As I wrote,
the mental structures that [the acquaintance has] built up about the world (Hod – Sephirah 8) are influencing the mental image he’s built up of the world around him (Yesod – Sephirah 9), and both his mental structures/assumptions and mental image are together influencing his perception of the world (Malkuth – Sephirah 10). This perception in turn influence his emotional reaction (Netzach – Sephirah 7), and his disgust and hatred for the beggar feed back into both his mental structure (8) and perception (10). The Tree of Life diagram shows us how these misguided assumptions create a distorted feedback loop between Sephiroth 7-10 and the paths that connect them. This loop is the primary structure of the “Khu,” the illusion that prevents the individual from seeing reality and the self clearly [technically, the illusion is created by the Khu, and calling the illusions themselves the “Khu” is a kind of shorthand]. It is only by shifting attention away from these false mental constructs that the individual can allow the “light” of the higher Sephiroth to flow through the Khu and restore balance. In order to do this, however, the individual must learn to pay attention to reality without the distorting lenses of the mind.
It can be a useful exercise to take an incident from one’s own life where one has perceived incorrectly and to analyze it in Qabalistic terms like this. It could be especially insightful to write a journal entry on it, noting the paths and Sephiroth involved. Then, consult a reference book like 777 to see some of the correspondences for the Sephiroth and paths and reflect on the connections. How are those correspondences appropriate for the Sephiroth and paths in question? How do they apply to your situation? What do they reveal about how your specific mind created misperception and delusion in this specific circumstance?
Write the answers out for yourself in as much detail as you can.
An exercise like this will not – repeat NOT – reveal your True Will. Once again, the True Will is not a rational thing, and you cannot “think” your way to it. What an exercise like this will do, hopefully, is give you more insight into your particular mind and the way in which your particular mind distorts impressions. It will also train your mind to be more mindful of these structures in real time.
This training is part of purifying your “temple” to await the indwelling of the “spirit.” That is to say, it is preparation for the task of perceiving and acting on your True Will.
Hopefully, this post will get people thinking about the paths of the Tree of Life and how to begin applying them to an analysis of the illusion-making faculty in their own lives.