Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Ladder of the Spheres East and West

A number of mystical ideologies operate under the premise that existence as we know it was not created by a primordial, self-caused entity, popularly called God. Rather, they operate under the premise that existence is an emanation in which the primordial First Cause (that is, “God”), although remaining unchanged also divides and transforms Itself through a series of progressively denser stages until the physical world as we know it comes into being. This idea is found in Neoplatonic, Gnostic, Hermetic, Kabalist, Samkhyan, and Tantric systems to name only those I’m somewhat familiar with.

Verse 35 from an esoteric Tantric meditation manual called the Saundarya-Lahari, which is the text-accompaniment of a famous Tantric image called Śri Chakra (also, Śri Yantra; the discipline itself is called Śri Vidya), explains it nicely:

You are the mind, you are space, and you also are fire. You are water and earth, too. When you have transformed yourself into the universe in this way, there is nothing that exists in relation to you. To transform yourself into the universe, you assume the aspects of consciousness and bliss in the form of the power of Śiva.

It is important to understand the idea of emanation because this is the rationale for chakra lore and for its Western equivalents, specifically, the Kabalist Tree of Life and the alchemical/hermetic ladder of the planets and similar antique concepts about the archons (planetary rulers discussed in some forms of Gnosticism and astral magic).
n Hindu lore (Samkhyan and Tantric/Agamic systems), God becomes the world (macrocosm) and the human being (microcosm) through 24 (or 36) stages in which a series of “elements” (tattvas) evolve from one another in a hierarchal manner. The last 7 elements in descending order are consciousness, intelligence, space, air, fire, water, and earth. These elements are the basis of name and form as are, thus, the basis of the senses and sense objects. Indeed, the idea is that the senses and sense objects (that is, the human or animal nervous system and the world it apprehends) come into being simultaneously and are interdependent. One is a reflection and extension of the other. The seven elements are depicted as psychodynamic centers within the body through which a person operates. These are the chakras (literally, “discs” or “wheels”).

The Internet and bookstores are inundated with information—most of which is parroting and blather—about chakra lore, and so I will spare the reader from too much redundancy on the matter.
Attriibuted to Johann Georg Gitchell (1638-1710)

The cause and essence of the chakras is personified in Hinduism as the Great Goddess. She represents the manifesting power (Śakti) of “Divine Consciousness” (Śiva; The Benefiscent One;   ie, “God”). This power residing in the human or other embodied being is called Kundalini, which means “She Who Is Coiled.” It is depicted as a snake curled in on itself to suggest that the creative power in humans is inactive and waiting to be aroused. That is, after evolving the elements such that spirit has completely become matter, the manifesting power of God goes to sleep, hidden in a state of potentiality. The result is that the person apprehends reality as duality, body-consciousness, and the physical world. The person is in a state of imprisonment in the nervous system so-to-speak and understands reality only through it. This process of emanation from spirit to matter is the path of descent. To meditate on it is to contemplate how God becomes the world.
In philosophical alchemy and in some forms of Western occultism, the seven classical planets are the equivalents of the chakras. The seven classical planets are those recognized by medieval scholars and are based on the antique medieval geocentric idea of the universe. They are in order from Earth to the outer rungs of the cosmos: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond these orbs are the fixed stars (the zodiac/constellations); beyond that, the “primum mobilis” and the angelic realms, and beyond that, God as the Divine Mind, or Nous.

An image of the Cosmos from the text Utrisque Cosmi, Volume 1, by 16th-17th century alchemist and mystic Robert Fludd (1574-1637) depicts circles or shells within shells—22 in all, representing the 22 levels of emanation, beginning with Nous, going through nine choirs of angels (Seraphim, Cherubim, Dominions, Thrones, Powers, Principalities, Virtues, Archangels, and Angels), followed by the classical planets, and then the elements. The elements in descending order are Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. Fludd gives 22 emanations to correspond with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet that, according to the Kabalist text Sefira Yetzirah, are the numinous seeds of phenomenological existence in much the same way that, in Hindu lore, the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are thought to have profound mystical meaning as the seed vibrations out of which creation is formed.
The latent power is called the Secret Fire in Hermeticism and the Divine Spark in Gnostic and magical Christianity (and the descent of the Holy Spirit in Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity). The process is referred to in western esotericism as working with the Middle Pillar, a reference to the Kabbalist Tree of Life. (Ancient Greek esotericists may have called it the spereima—which means serpent or serpent power—but there is scarce surviving information about it.)

The spiritual quest is to awaken the latent power within and lead it back up through a path of ascent from form and limitation (and unbridled unconscious force) to spirit, true volition and creativity, knowledge, awareness, and transcendental liberation. In so doing, the elements, represented by the spheres and the psychodynamic limitations that they embody, must each be “resolved” into the element that hierarchically precedes them through an esoteric process of involution.
Various meditation methods—some quite elaborate and occult—have been developed to “purify” the spheres and resolve them into the next higher on the rung of their hierarchical ladder. For example, in alchemy, the chemical metamorphosis occurring in the laboratory retort is a physical metaphor and contemplation of spiritual transformations taking place in the alchemist. The practitioner essentially goes through a psychologic and neurologic transformation through meditation and either yogic or ritual exercises and observances whereby subconscious complexes that result in artificial habits and conditioning are purged.

A primary difference between Eastern and Western treatment of the path of ascent and descent is that generally (but not exclusively), meditation on the spheres is performed starting at the base of the spine and proceeding to the “crown” in Eastern systems and from the crown to the base of the spine or lower limbs in Western systems. In Eastern systems, the practitioner brings the essential spiritual energy within up into “higher” centers of consciousness, purging and breaking apart the psychodynamic blocks that suppress its consolidation and its integration into full consciousness. In Western systems, power is brought down from its source in the spiritual realm into the human form to cause a transmutation of that form wherein identification between the human spirit and the divine spirit can be actualized.

Both Eastern and Western systems refer to the symbol of the lightning bolt to describe this power. It is depicted and visualized in mediation as a jagged line following a simple map of the sefira of the Tree of Life and Western forms of occultism that draw on Kabala. In visualization, the line shoots in a zig-zag from the top pole to the root and then proceeds up in a straight line. In eastern Tantra, the core of the śushumna (the equivalent of the middle pillar and the esoteric spine) is likened to a lightening rod (vajra). Within it is said to be a scintillating hair-thin rod (chitra) within which is a hollow that is the pathway (Brahma-nadi) of consolidated energy from the base to the brow and the periphery to the center. Both Tantric Hindu and alchemical systems also use the imagery of serpents to metaphorically refer to that power. The serpent often represents primal or latent power that must be harnessed and transformed.

In the classic Kundalini-rising episode, which seems to have been experienced by such mystics as Jacob Bohme, Plotinus, and many others in the Western mystical and occult traditions, the mystical pathways of ascent and descent become clear. A subjective sensation of heat and energy, originating at the base of the spine or solar plexus and ascending through the body, across the cervical spine, and “flowering” (or “exploding”) in the head, often occurs. (The loop actually occurs physiologically as a neuroelectrical jolt that shoots across the somatosensory cortex of the brain.) It culminates in a profound spiritual reverie. This experience is markedly different from those suggestive of so-called “spiritual emergency crises,” which constitute a controversial topic for another essay.
The Kundalini-rising (or Secret Fire) experience is typically self-limited. The activated energy seems to filter back down and the person goes back to ordinary life. After an episode (or after each episode, as the experience is repeatable), the person may have the impression that a change has taken place or that an insight or initiation has spontaneously occurred. More interestingly, the quality of life and encounters in the days, weeks, and even months following more intensive episodes may be marked with peculiar graciousness. This suggests that the experience itself, though coveted, is not the end-goal but is the epiphenomenon of an ongoing transformational process. Ultimately, the states of profound, unobstructed clarity that occur during or in the aftermath of these episodes become constants of the personality and the episodes themselves may become attenuated as the psychodynamic complexes that they are modifying themselves become attenuated.

Selected bibliography:

Bentov Itzhak. Micromotion of the Body as a Factor in the Development of the Nervous System. In: Sannella Lee. The Kundalini Experience. Lower Lake, California: Integral Publishing, 1992.
Chatterjee  Satischandra, Datta Dhirendramohan. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. Calcutta: The University of Calcutta. 1984.
Churton Tobias. Gnostic Philosophy From Ancient Persia to Modern Times. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions. 2005.
Hauck Dennis William. Sorcerer’s Stone A Beginners Guide to Alchemy. New York: Citadel Press. 2004.
MacKenna Stephen (trans.) Plotinus The Enneads.  London: Penguin Books. 1991.
Roob Alexander. Alchemy and Mysticism. Koln, Germany: Taschen. 2006
Silburn Lilian. Kundalini Energy of the Depths. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. 1988.
Singh Jaideva (trans.) Siva Sutras The Yoga of Supreme Identity. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 1988
Stenring Knut (trans.) The Book of Formation or Sepher Yetzirah Attributed to Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph. Berwick, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, Inc. 2004.
Tapasyananda (translation and commentary). Saundarya Lahari of Sri Sankacharya. Mylapore, Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math. No publication date given. 

What's coming up:  Nonfiction about my Arbatel Working project. Probably ready by August 2013 at least on Kindle. The appendix will contains supplemental information such as this essay and the ever popular essay from this blog about the Azoth.  Contact for more info.

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