Kabbalah and the 32 Types of Consciousness

11/07/2010 09:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The most ancient (and still used) text of the Kabbalah is called the Sefer Yetzirah or Book of Formation, and its contents are generally attributed to the Biblical patriarch Abraham. The book opens with a discussion of the "32 Mystical Paths of Wisdom," paths derived from the 10 digits on our hands (quantity) plus the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, which we use to construct language and thereby describe reality (quality). These paths are also reflected in the 10 sefirot -- spheres of energy that are the building blocks of physical reality yet also relate to character traits as well as states of consciousness:

These 10 spheres are connected by 22 lines or pathways (not depicted in this picture), intersections that allow for a total of 32 states of consciousness with names like sekhel mufla (mystical consciousness), sekhel maz'hir (radiant consciousness) and sekhel kavua (settled consciousness).

The Sefer Yetzirah is a guidebook that explains the tools and techniques that are required to enter these states. One important (and practical) distinction that we can all make and relate to concerns the states of chochma (expansive subconsciousness) and binah (the conscious mind). Long ago, the Kabbalah knew that creativity was housed in the right brain and analytical thought in the left. Freud and Jung were familiar with these kabbalistic works and borrowed heavily from them (as did Newton and others).

Therefore, we are all familiar with these two states of being. Chochma is what we experience when we are at our creative best -- when we are in "the zone" and experiencing a natural, easy flow. Artists, musicians and other creative people know it well and they also know that they are able to achieve, channel and create in that space in ways that would be impossible in normal waking life. Chochma is not concerned with life's practicalities, it only perceives an infinite array of possibility. In this sense it closely mirrors our conception of the spiritual world that exists in tandem with ours but is generally inaccessible due to our constricted states of consciousness.

There are moments in life when the doorway to chochma consciousness suddenly swings open and we are able to briefly taste reality as it could be (if we only knew how to control it). The birth of a child, a spectacular sunset and a beautiful symphony are all borrowed vehicles that allow us to interface with true chochma. In truth, this is what we are all desperately looking for. It's the reason that people do drugs, seek sex and listen to rock 'n' roll. Boil down the desire to its core and you will always discover the true drive for meaning, harmony, love, unity and transcendence. Chochma is the dimension where, as Aldous Huxley wrote, "we see the world as it truly is ... infinite". He also said that in order to do that, the "doors of perception" needed to be cleansed. The Torah is the instruction manual that guides us along that path.

In order to harness and process the information and experiences of chochma, another type of consciousness is required called binah. Binah is our analytical, practical and down-to-earth state. One that is useful for accounting, problem solving, computer programming, paying bills on time and the like. It is grounded and practical and has the ability to take the inspiration from chochma and "make it real". If chochma is like vast water, then binah is like pipes, channeling and directing the energy so that it does not go to waste. Binah is a female force and indeed the Talmud tells us that women have a higher level of it than men. Binah is the power of control and creative limitation. It's a vessel to contain and build the lights of chochma, which by themselves have limited practical application. In this regard, it is interesting to note that what a man contributes to the conception process is super-abundant (to the point of hilarious overkill) information in the form of billions of cells. The woman's body takes but a singe unit of that vast expansion of information and slowly crafts it into human life.

Sometimes, people over-analyze, second guess and scrutinize. They are too heavily controlled by binah, and this usually leads to negative results, as in, "Well, he texted me yesterday and told me he had a good time, but then I thought, 'What does he mean by that? Isn't "good" kind of a generic word? And if he really cared wouldn't he have just called anyway?'" Though useful, binah does not always bring us to tranquility, harmony and big picture thinking. On the other hand, there are those who can get stuck in chochma and respond to life challenges with too much openness and love. These folks might never develop a stable relationship, or hold down a job as they are always seeing the world through a macrocosmic, expansive lens. The lights getting shut off due to non-payment might elicit an "it's all good" -- and indeed it is -- but we are taught that a balance needs to be struck.

The Sefer Yetzirah strives to teach us the technique to create this balance called ratzo v'shov -- running and returning. This is a meditative oscillation between chochma and binah that allows one to mine the expansive depths of chochma, yet to anchor them firmly in our conscious minds in a way that we are able to make good use of them. In the end of the day, we need both states to live balanced lives in a stable yet meaningful spiritual equilibrium.

For a stunning, impactful and crystal clear example of what I'm describing, have a look at this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain scientist describing the effects of a stroke that shut down her left brain. What she describes is simply pure chochma consciousness in its most distilled form as her binah was completely switched off. It's as beautiful as it is astounding. This is the state that the Sefer Yetzirah is teaching us to access, and there are wondrous benefits available to all those who succeed in harnessing and bonding these two great powers of the mind.