Thursday, 31 January 2013

Spiritual Jitsu

At University I decided to try out martial arts. After looking around a bit I finally settled on Ju Jitsu as it was described as “a martial art focused on using your enemies’ momentum against them”. That seemed like a pretty neat thing to be able to do.

Although I started and stopped Jitsu 3 times in the past few decades – aside from getting really good at doing break-falls – the philosophy of using momentum from other sources to my advantage has stayed with me.

Think about it for a moment…. As a practitioner you have various forces at work in your spheres of influence. Some may be acting in a way that you perceive to be benevolent and perhaps some as perceived acting in a malevolent way. But each is being propelled in and out of your life with a certain level of momentum.

The question in my mind is not so much: how do I shield myself against the malevolent forces. The question is really – how do I use that momentum to good effect?

Can I transmute a perceived negative in to a positive? Is it here to remove crud I don’t need, teach a lesson or just a way to slingshot myself to a better place where I can grow without encountering trajectories of such destructive forces?

A friend of my wife has a lot of bad things happen in her life. Nothing too drastic, but it just seems to be one long series of minor unfortunate events. I don’t believe that she is cursed or that she somehow attracts such things in to her life - even though she has in the past turned a small thing in to a crisis. Rather I see it as the Universe transforming her one nudge at a time. And she is changing; she is growing and getting stronger & more resilient. A greater impact in her life might have caused her spirit to buckle and take an age to recover.

So if you are feeling at a low ebb and wonder how you’re going to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when life has knocked you down or is just continuously dragging you down. Don’t fight it directly… the art of the gentle way (Ju Jitsu) can be used to channel the momentum of such things out of your life or move you out of their spheres of influence.

Perhaps I am not explaining this as well as I could. It’s a bit like describing how to perform a throw in martial arts and experiencing it. Having been a Sensei’s practice dummy for awhile in one group, I know the sensation of landing in a break-fall very well. Land well and you can roll to spring back up again. Land badly and you’re winded, disorientated and possibly in pain.

In the path of magical and mystical development… learn to land well. Momentum is power, use it wisely.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Great Work and being human

The Great Work

There’s a number of bloggers conversing about the Great Work at the moment. To be honest, I’m not really sure what the Great Work is… Anyway, here are some links that I recommend you read if you had not done so already.

Unlike a lot of other places in the internet, the comments are well worth reading.
  1. The Guru Trip by Rufus Opus 
  2. What the Great Work Is by Jason from Strategic Sorcery 
  3. On the Great Work by Michael from the Lion’s Den

Having read all that I’m still not sure what the Great Work is… but let’s use the definition of “to be more than human”. But why would someone want to be more than human? What drives someone to want to be a god?

Strife of the Spirit

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his book “Strife of the Spirit” asks (amongst other things) the question: is it better to achieve peace of mind or live with strife of the spirit. He argues convincingly (imo) that not only is achieving ‘peace of mind’ a hollow goal, if you’re not constantly trying to progress then you’re not only stagnating but actually going backwards. Life is an escalator that you have to continuously climb – stand still and it carries you back down.

Where does a person’s drive to go through strife of the spirit in order to grow come from? Why does a person feel hollow? Rabbi Akiva Tatz answered that question for me in this essay (see section II “One of the mysteries…”) in his amazing book “Worldmask”.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

OK, so a certain level of strife is conductive for growth (if you have the mind-set to want to be a better person). Also, we’re trying to rebuild our spiritual receivers so that we don’t feel quite as empty, I get that. But why is the path of magical or mystical growth so hard?

Gordon of Rune Soup argues that it’s getting easier. I see his point.

But as Sefer Yetzirah described in chapter 1 verse 1, there are 32 paths of Wisdom. As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains in his commentary and translation – the word for path is Netivot, meaning private paths (as opposed to a public road that is easily accessible). In other words, they are internal paths of development that each person must discover for themselves. So it’s getting easier, right?

I’m not 100% convinced. In the Mystery of Marriage Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, he mentions an idea: unrectified imagination - the idea being that you have an ideal in mind that is not really achievable, but you cling to it regardless. Taking it a bit further – you may have a certain idea what developing along a magical or mystical path might be like… but if it’s not what you expect it to be then unrectfied imagination may be what is holding you back.


Hopefully you’ve got some food for thought about why we strive to be better and what may hold us back. There certainly seems to be a growing trend of magical practice increasing in the world.

Has anyone completed the Great Work and become more than human? I don’t know. The Rabbis teach that when a person dies – they will not be asked: why did you not reach the level of Moses? Instead they will be asked: why did you not achieve your full potential?

Here is a parting quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) about being a better person:
4: 1.
Ben Zoma would say:
Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated (Psalms 119:99): "From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation." 
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated (Proverbs 16:32), "Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city."
Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated (Psalms 128:2): "If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you"; "fortunate are you" in this world, "and good is to you" in the World to Come. 
Who is honourable? One who honours his fellows. As is stated (I Samuel 2:30): "For to those who honour me, I accord honour; those who scorn me shall be demeaned."

So if you think that you have completed the Great Work or become a god, can you honestly say that you have reached your ultimate potential and are at least as wise, rich, strong and honourable as described in the Pikrei Avot 4:1 quote above?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Idel on Ars Combinatoria and the Kabbalah that I love

There are many streams of Kabbalah. Many ways to divide up a vast body of knowledge. The spotlight of in-vogue research, writing and practice has focused on a few of those streams. For example theoretical Kabbalah based around the Zohar, path working based around the Ten Sefirot on the Tree of Life glyph, working with angels - all these are in the more popular streams.

Manipulating the Hebrew letters as detailed in Sefer Yetzirah and ecstatic Kabbalah of Abraham Abulafia - these are less popular (although the latter is growing in recent decades). It is this category that fascinates me, that drives me onwards to study and grow. Rather than try to elaborate on this stream of Kabbalah, you would do much better listening to an academic who is leading his field.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of hearing Professor Moshe Idel give a lecture in Oxford. Unfortunately I was only able to attend one lecture and not the other 2 parts of the lecture. However, since they are available on-line I listened to them again last week.

The lectures were sponsored by the Berendel Foundation. Here are the links:

Lecture 1: Sefer Yetzirah and its Commentaries
‘Sefer Yetzirah and its Commentaries: A major source for ars combinatoria’
Introduced by Prof. Robert Evans
8 February, Faculty of History, University of Oxford
In collaboration with the MHRC and Oxford Centre for Jewish and Hebrew Studies

Lecture 2: Ars Combinatoria in Modern Times
‘Ars Combinatoria in Modern Times: Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, and Ioan P. Culianu’
Introduced by Dr. Joanna Weinberg
9 February, The David Patterson Seminar at Yarnton Manor
In collaboration with the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies

Lecture 3: The Transition of Ars Combinatoria from Kabbalah to European Culture  
‘The Transition of Ars Combinatoria from Kabbalah to European Culture: Ramon Llull, Pseudo-Llull, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’
Introduced by Prof. David Norbrook
10 February, Merton College
In collaboration with the Centre for Early Modern Studies

 Foucault's Pendulum 
Lecture 2 makes a lot more sense if you have read Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. If you have not read this book yet, drop everything and get this book! It contains some very important lessons and warnings. Lecture 3 did not make as much sense to me as Lectures 1 and 2 - as I'm not yet familiar with the works of Lull and Pico della Mirandola.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Context and 13 Principles of Faith

When I read different books on Kabbalah, I sometimes wonder how much awareness there is of Maimonides's Thirteen Principles of faith.

Maimonides was a highly, highly influential rabbi who lived in Twelfth century. Although his rationalist worldview is not as mainstream as it once might have been, his rulings on Jewish law still form the bedrock for many rulings and interpretations of Jewish law today. For example, the laws for how to distinguish if a person is the Messiah or not.

Anyway, the reason I'm bringing this up is twofold.... 1. I'm close to completing my first read-through of his book: "Guide for the Perplexed". It's quite a challenging book to read and has forced me on numerous occasions to re-evaluate my worldview. 2. I'm sure that I will quote the 13 principles at some point soon and want to have an easy link in this blog.

Here are the 13 principles of faith.
  1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists. 
  2. The belief in G-d's absolute and unparalleled unity. 
  3. The belief in G-d's non-corporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling. 
  4. The belief in G-d's eternity. 
  5. The imperative to worship G-d exclusively and no foreign false gods. 
  6. The belief that G-d communicates with man through prophecy. 
  7. The belief in the primacy of the prophecy of Moses our teacher. 
  8. The belief in the divine origin of the Torah. 
  9. The belief in the immutability of the Torah. 
  10. The belief in G-d's omniscience and providence. 
  11. The belief in divine reward and retribution. 
  12. The belief in the arrival of the Messiah and the messianic era. 
  13. The belief in the resurrection of the dead. 
If you want to understand the context and worldview that Jewish Kabbalists are writing in, then you need to be aware of these principles. Different names of the Divine do not refer to different entities, such as Eolohim and El Shaddai. Names reflect attributes, ways of interacting with Creation. Angels that have Divine names as part of their name is another matter that I will hopefully cover later in the year.

Friday, 11 January 2013

In the Words of a Master

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan was one of the foremost people to bring knowledge of Hebrew Kabbalah to a vast audience by collecting numerous manuscripts and translating them to English. His books changed my life.

If you're only going to pick one author from whom to study Kabbalah, then Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan is my recommendation. I hold him in such high regard that one of my children has Aryeh (meaning lion) in his name.

Here is an interview with the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan to gives an introduction to Kabbalah.

Part 1
Part 2

If you are unfamiliar with the terms Torah and Talmud, they refer to the Jewish written law and oral law respectively.

This blog, Trainee Golem Builder, was set-up to track my progress towards understanding Kabbalah from a theoretical and meditative perspective well enough to know how to build a golem.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Learning and Integrating Experiences

Learning Kabbalah is relatively easy**. Of course there are multiple forms of Kabbalah and I can only speak about what little I have learned and practiced. So here is my where-to-get-started list of recommended reading for an introduction to Hebrew Kabbalah:

  • “The Thirteen Petalled Rose” by Adin Steinsaltz - good introduction to the basics of Hebrew Kabbalah metaphysics, how the world was created, what a soul is, etc.
  • “Jewish Meditation” by Aryeh Kaplan - solid introduction to meditation.
  • "Meditation and Kabbalah" by Aryeh Kaplan - introduction to different strands of thoughts and practice in Hebrew Kabbalah.
  • "Ecstatic Kabbalah" by David A. Cooper - good introduction to strand of Hebrew Kabbalah that deals with prophetic experience.
  • "Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism: An Essential Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Mystical Traditions of Judaism" by Perle Besserman. - good introduction.
  • "God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism" by David A. Cooper - interesting look at how the Divine and creation interact and are one.
  • "Path of the Kabbalah" by David Sheinkin - another good introduction with some practical advice.

Once you start learning, the next thing to do is practice. The above mentioned books have some instructions on how to meditate and try out practical exercises. However, in the course of this reading and looking at the bibliographies you should find other sources to study in more detail to look for practical techniques. My personal favourite is “Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation” by Aryeh Kaplan.

The thing that I have found is that study & practice go in a sort of cycle, a bit like the Plan-Do-Check-Act that is so often spoken about in Project Management. Here is a simple diagram that lines up the two cycles below.

You start by reading books and/or finding a teacher. Then you practice. After which I would recommend keeping a diary of your experiences and dreams as part of the “reflect” stage. Then you integrate your experiences and new insights in to the next round of learning. Please note that some or all of these stages can overlap. Also, it is recommended that you have a teacher to help guide you (note: this does not mean railroad) you through. If like me you do not have a teacher, you may experience some difficulty at any stage, in particular the “integrate” stage.

The “integrate” stage is where you absorb the experiences and new insights. What this means to me is that your worldview and beliefs may be adjusted, it may affect other factors or your life as well. Here is a simple diagram that illustrates what may be affected in your life by following a magical and/or mystical path.

Rinse and repeat the above cycles until you start to see effects. It may be a little uncomfortable at times and it is important to constantly monitor the effects of your pratice in your life and those around you. Reflect often, each night works best for me. Meditate every day and good luck!

** for a given definition of easy.

Monday, 7 January 2013

New Year, Little Changes

New Year is not in my experience a good time to start something new. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere it’s probably cold, dark and mid-winter has only just passed by. In a few weeks’ time it will be Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees, which is celebrated with planting new trees.

In Jewish Law it is forbidden to eat the fruits of a new tree for the first 3 years and in the fourth year they can be eaten in Jerusalem (see Orlah). From the fifth year onwards it’s OK to eat them wherever (ignoring for the moment the Shmitta year in Israel). Tu B’Shvat marks the end and start point for counting the age of trees.

Hence this time of year is in my view is a not a good time for new beginnings. Your body is still saying: store fat for the winter is not yet done. The ground is still too cold for planting most things and even hardy creatures such as trees should not go in to the ground until just under a month from now.

This time of year is however a really good time for reflection of the previous year and planning for the spring, summer and autumn. So here are some thoughts from last year and seeds of plans for this coming solar year:

  • Still obsessed with Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creation)
  • Finally able to do Hebrew -> English translation work without it being really painful, plan to give back to the community by releasing material later in the year
  • Managed not to get too distracted with other systems of knowledge & practice, e.g. grimoires
  • Experience is still the best teacher, even if it’s a bit lonely at times
  • Detroit Lions 2012/2013… worked well as a honey pot project
  • I may be addicted to magic, just can’t seem to leave it alone
  • Try to network more in the coming year
  • Plan to spend more time studying and posting responses than practice & learning from experience. Might as well be honest with setting my expectations from the start.