Most modern western Magickal systems draw upon the kabbalah for their theoretical understanding of the world: our Order uses kabbalah very extensively. In the kabbalah we have the concept of the four worlds or dimensions (from the bottom up): Assiyah, Yesod, Briah and Azilut: Action, Foundation, Creation, and Transcendence. Like all of kabbalah, this is a model to help us grasp in a fairly straightforward way something that is about the meaning of everything and therefore ultimately ungraspable. But without models we can say nothing useful, so we have to accept a degree of simplification in order to communicate at all. So of course there are many more than four worlds or layers of existence; but all subdividing has to stop somewhere, so four has become a usefully manageable number. What the Hebrew names of these dimensions mean is also up for discussion; but for the purpose of this article I’m going to wildly oversimplify and call them the Material world, the Psychological world, the Psychic world and the Spiritual world. Each one is seen as overlapping the next and touching the one after, and they are constantly shading into one another and leaking material up and down.
Each world has similar processes, but each one works somewhat differently. So the material world is very dense, very solid and very specific. The psychological is quite specific, but not completely definite, nor solid. The psychic world is very flowing, very plastic and very changeable, but still can be predicted and described to some extent. In the spiritual world it is very difficult to say anything at all with the limited descriptive tools we have available.
Human beings, because of being created in the ‘image’ of God, are designed to operate on all four levels. We typically tend to operate most on the lower ones, but deep down we will ultimately feel a loss if we only work on one. We will, however, vaguely, experience something missing if we are completely cut off from the psychological, psychic or spiritual worlds.
This impacts upon us in a number of ways. We experience the material world all the time. It feels very ‘real’ to us because it is so solid and specific. When I stub my toe on a material-world pavement, my material-world toe feels pain. In this physical world I feel hunger, hot or cold, and a range of bodily sensations which are constantly bombarding me. Everyone knows this, and it is so compelling that we often think that this world is all there is. However, it does not take much for us to admit the presence of a psychological world. In spite of neurology, we know that thinking and feeling, although mediated by physical processes, are not purely physical. The more we understand psychology, the more we grasp that the psychological world, whilst certain more fluid and less easy to pin down than the material, is also ‘real’.
What of the psychic? Most people have experienced some sort of psychic phenomenon; but we tend to put it down to imagination or indigestion. Yet, when we take the psychic world seriously and work within it, we realise that, although it is much more plastic, variable and less specific than either the material or psychological worlds, it is still ‘real’.
Mystics have been trying to describe the spiritual world since the dawn of humanity, and whether they have succeeded or not, I’m sure I can’t do any better than they did – so I won’t add my own description. This world is the least dense and the most plastic; in the spiritual world things are never just one thing – they are this, and that, and also the other, and much more. And we can’t say much about the spiritual world without doing it an injustice.
In the kabbalistic system, above the spiritual world is a state that is described as ‘endless light’, or ‘without end’, or simply ‘nothing’. This ‘nothing’ does not, however, mean an empty void. It means that there is nothing we can say about it because this state, paradoxically, is the opposite of nothingness: it is so full that we have no words in our material vocabulary fit to describe it.
This problem pervades all our discussions about these worlds. We are using material speech and vocabulary, which is based upon material-world concepts and experiences, to describe something which is impossible to pin down with these crude tools. If you have every tried to eat soup with chopsticks (which I do not recommend), you will be faced with a similar order of problem: you won’t be able to grasp it, much less eat it. The best you can hope for is to get a taste now and then. And that is what we have with our spiritual experiences: an occasional taste of something way beyond our means to comprehend it, which we can put down to accident or imagination if we so choose, but which some of us – and I include myself – recognise as a higher reality and become addicted to.
In Magickal thinking, it is not helpful to see these worlds as a sort of moral hierarchy. Yes, we describe some as ‘higher’ and some as ‘lower’. But this is like describing places on a mountain. Some are at the base and some at the summit, and some in between; but none are better than the others – that is just their position. It isn’t ‘better’ to be at the summit of a mountain rather than halfway up. It may be that our destination is the summit, as our destination in the kabbalistic system is to ascend to the highest point; but the summit isn’t better than the base, just a different stage. In my youth as a mountaineer I felt compelled to race past the lower levels to get to the top; but now I have started to see that each point on the mountain is a destination of its own and has its own special joys.
In the same way, the spiritual world is not ‘better’ than the material world. Each of these dimensions are of equal value, and huge difficulties are caused by trying to skip those levels which are imagined to be ‘lower’. In fact we need to return constantly to the material and psychological levels in order to give our work in the psychic and spiritual a solid base and a place to operate in. One of the great advantages that the material world has over the others is that actual change can happen here in a solid and grounded way. In the Order there is a great deal of time and effort put into our development in the physical and psychological worlds, and this enables us to world in a sane, safe and effective way in the psychic and spiritual ones.
Each of these dimensions has its own advantages and dangers. The material world has got a particular danger because it is so compelling that it feels real. Each dimension is ‘real’ in its own definition, although none are ‘real’ in the definition of the others. It is common for someone who has had a mystical experience of the higher worlds to suddenly start to feel that this physical world is not real – that it is the world of maya, illusion. This is a common view in various religions, but it is not the Magickal view. Yes, from the point of view of the spiritual, the material world feels unreal, merely a shadow. But from the point of view of the material world, the spiritual or psychic worlds also feel unreal and illusory. Those of us who are familiar with all these levels realise that each one is equally real – but ‘real’ for one is not the same as ‘real’ is for the others.
I hope that this introduction to the four worlds has been clear, because in the next blog I want to look in more detail at a related issue. It is a very common problem for Magickal, spiritual and religious types to mix up material from these worlds, and this can lead to serious category errors. This causes all sorts of difficulties, from the merely absurd to the very dangerous, so we need to be aware of this tendency and guard against it. So, wait for the next exciting instalment…!