It has been a while since I talked about the tree of life/coil of life, hasn’t it? It is a useful symbol and there is a mobile and vitalist aspect to it that often gets obscured in the (overly) formal habits of Neoplatonism that yielded us its most popular expression.
First, though, a little refresher. Remember, that when I talk about the tree of life, I tend to think of it a little more like a fractal, with each sefirot radiating smaller trees off of itself. Moreover, I tend to think of the tree as coiling in on itself, with Malkuth and Keter being two sides of a coin. When I talk of initiatory operations, I divide the tree in half with Tifaret as the boundary. The lower half defines what I had shorthanded as a ‘magical’ operations while the upper half defines ‘spiritualist’ operations.
The shorthand definitely has its limits, though, and in the future I plan to avoid using it. In large part, that’s because there is way too much ambiguity in the terms ‘magical’ and ‘spiritualist’ to provide a meaningful conceptual foundation. Honestly, both ‘magical’ and ‘spiritualist’ practices cross that divide and both often dwell upon the lower half of the divide. I daresay it would be more useful to divide them by the operations beneath Tifaret–namely, that ‘magical’ operations favor Hod and ‘spiritualist’ operations favor Netzach.
We might, then, more accurately define two modes of operating sub-Tifaret, which parallel two gnostic modes supra-Tifaret. We can call the supra-Tifaret modes those of Mercy and Severity, or even the modes of Jupiter and Saturn (at least as long as we use those terms in their extended and richly symbolic sense). The so-called ‘perennial philosophy’ emphasizes the mode of mercy, but it has perennially been accompanied by a philosophy that favors the mode of severity.
The tension between Hod and Netzach manifest most keenly in Yesod, in the tension between sign and image. That tension is productive, turning the axel that grinds it into Tifaret. The sense of brightness that a person acquires in initiatory work has much to do with this friction and the way it grinds at Tifaret, generating light.
The metaphor of friction is useful, too, because it raises the question about heat. While Tifaret is bright, the experience most practices seek to cultivate is a sense of light and coolness. The friction, though, also generates heat. That heat, too, has a productive function. It operates more deeply in the soul, generating transformations of which we are only dimly aware.
The light and coolness allies Tifaret generally with the gnostic mode of mercy, but the heat points out a dark and mysterious aspect to which the gnostic mode of severity is aligned, what appears among the sefirot as Da’ath. Da’ath and Tifaret manifest the dualism in the soul that the tree manifests more generally.
When we turn to the lower level, then, we are looking at something profound, this work of concept and affect that remakes us into our deep being. It isn’t the movement from one to the other and onward that works the tree, but the movement back and forth between them that drives the action of the tree.
I came across this article while I was putting the finishing touches on this post together and the author has a really sharp way of describing just that:
And if we try to separate the two we’ll end up with two kinds of religious language that are equally inadequate, equally offensive, and entirely alien to one another. The first is an overly literal sort, which offends by letting so much of life fall through its gaps and by presenting religious ideas in ludicrously blunt terms; the second is a brand of God-talk that feels like little more than a pompous way of discussing — even indulging — our emotions.
(I should also say that I have found the Aeon magazine a delight in general; the site is full of thoughtful and broad thinking.)
Let me conclude by returning to an observation I made about that turning–it is anchored in Yesod. That is important–Yesod, not Malkuth.
Yesod drapes itself over Malkuth like a veil draped over a skull. Malkuth gives Yesod foundation, gives it substance and diversity, and Yesod produces meaningfulness, which it will fall to the work of Hod and Netzach to articulate and enliven.
And the mystery that opens between Tifaret and Da’ath widens to encompass the mystery between Yesod and Malkuth, Malkuth and Keter.