So, this post is meant to be something of a response to two posts (here and here) over on Hermetic Lessons, a continuation of the discussion started on an earlier post on this blog. Reading those posts, I am starting to see that there are a few intuitions we share, as well as a few on which we diverge. Categorized as a notebook to emphasize that this is one more contingent mask through which I’m thinking.
Let me start with a quotation from Hermetic Lessons:
“We naturally acquire this mask of messily acquired other ”grades”, initiation simply applies some system of understanding that – we acquire experience of other cells this way and come to know ourself in the body as opposed to just ourselves in the cell. Without this tour of the inner space, which has been expressed out into the world, we can’t fully know what the point of it all is, although we may good at doing it.” (emphasis mine)
The language about the cell versus the body resonates deeply with me and with the way the Kabbalistic work has helped me to illuminate elements of the Bible, reopening the text as a source of spiritual insight for me (yes, the Christian texts as well as the Hebraic ones; definitely not in an orthodox way with either if this blog hasn’t made that abundantly clear; this is probably another post entirely, though, so let me set this aside for a moment).
I mostly agree, too, with the distinction between implicit understanding and an explicit one developed through ‘initiation’ (I put the word in scare quotes to indicate I am borrowing the term from him and to indicate that I suspect we tend to use the same word to refer to different things). What I don’t think is true, though, is that this ‘initiatory’ understanding is deeper than the understanding of living. Quite the opposite, I think one of the problems of such initiatory understanding is that it is more indirect and less grounded than living understanding.
This is where I tend to like the idea of a natural grade where what we discover through studying the material of the natural grade is insight into something like a spiritual temperament or predisposition. The ‘natural grade’ is that specific zone of esoteric study where your life and disposition give you the most (tacit and lived) experience to enrich the concepts which an educational grade provides them.
The idea of a natural grade also undermines the idea that we can really go it alone in the great work. No matter how much work I do with material outside that natural grade, my implicit horizon for understanding it can only be so broad and won’t rival another whose disposition suits them to it. To realize the body rather than the cell, I must set myself to work alongside others.
I’m still not certain how neatly a given educational grade maps onto spiritual dispositions, onto this ‘natural grade.’ In part because of the fractal nature of the work, in part because of the limits of individuals who put together the curriculum from their limited capacities, I suspect most grade systems serve best those who are most closely related temperamentally to their creators. Still, the concept of a natural grade isn’t undone by that, it’s just qualified.
It does suggest, though, that a viable community that embodies the body rather than the cell will have a hard time realizing itself within the confines of a grade system. Dynamic community tends to happen outside the confines of the curriculum, not within it.
Let me quote once more from Hermetic Lessons:
“I think using a system based on the Chaldean order works better as you are building (rectifying) the individual from the ”ground” up. You start at the bottom and work your way progressively through the Sefirot. Whilst a ”shotgun” approach to this maybe starting with Saturn and messing around with Mercury and then moving to the Sun may yield results I think it is more likely to exacerbate than starting from the bottom. Similarly with the zodiac man, building the Zodiac man in the self from the feet up seems to be sensible to me.” (emphasis mine)
I don’t tend to think of things in this way, though I quite like the sense of this being embodied, and of using our embodied experience to contemplate the matter.
Consider how we determine up and down within this system for a moment. If it is modeled upon the upright person (in more than one sense), consider how we learn to become upright. Taken in its more literal sense, consider how we optimally learn to walk upright. I want to highlight this, because what is labeled as ‘messy’ and ‘shotgun’ in these quotes is what I take to be the essence of learning itself. Organic, evolutionary, algorithmic, but not irrational.
Do we start to walk with our feet? Does our parent set us upon the soles of our heels and teach us to walk by moving our legs as if walking? We often start in a very peculiar fashion, crawling on hands and knees and developing from there toward walking. Even if we could walk outright, we have to discover the nature of our own gait by discovering the length of our legs, our arms, our body, the way each element balances, counterbalances, or unbalances.
It’s the same way we learn to be upright in an ethical sense, by periods of awkwardness, of failure, of doubt, of experimentation, followed by a growing sense of where out ethical compass points. I know folks like to poo-poo the age restrictions on studying the Kabbalah, but I do wonder if part of the restriction might derive from the sensible awareness that it’s better to do your stumbling a bit before you come to the Great Work.
The same has often been true of my own learning experiences—crawling toward my goal with a cobbled approach and altering the elements as I proceed toward a more elegant formulation. It may also be the case that there is a more elegant formulation for an individual than the ideal one that serves as our model in the system of grades.
This is one of the reasons I find the concept of permutation in Kabbalism so exciting as it suggests that there are other systematic orderings that nonetheless are workable, even if you have to work through a swathe of unworkable permutations to get there. Yes, well, Borges’s “Library of Babel” is a quite deliberately crafted Kabbalistic parable, no?
Are we even all walking? Are there those with their feet bound in Saturn, a hand upraised to guide and focus the Moon’s flickering illumination round about them, like a tree mounted by a dim lantern? Mimir’s children? Does not the body we come to form soon find itself in an ecosystem of bodies, some familiar, some alien?
The points of overlap and divergence between Kabbalistic models are themselves derived from the permutations that animate the Kabbalistic work itself. A series of letters in common, a series that diverges. We’re sitting here trying to figure out how close our nooks of the great library are, whether we are neighbors, or whether we are quite distant and our whispers reach other only by some peculiar acoustic feature of our respective nooks. Either way, it’s another glimpse at some other portion of the library’s riches.