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The path to higher consciousness in Kabbalah and allied traditions: An

approach from neuroscience and psychology

Brian L. Lancaster
In broad terms the mystical tradition within Judaism is focused more on the attempt to
understand the nature of God than it is on inner states and the nature of mind. Given
that the primary source for knowing God derives from His act of revelation through
which the Torah is given to humankind, the majority of mystical texts are hermeneutic
in form. Judaism holds that Gods essence and His ways may be known through study
of scripture. One of the most respected of Jewish exegetes, Nachmanides (11951270), articulated the mystical approach to the Torah by asserting that its letters may
be viewed as comprising the name of God; whilst the exoteric approach through
which its letters are grouped into words conveying stories and laws, when understood
esoterically the letters constitute nothing other than the name. And, for the Kabbalist,
the name is no mere appellation but a glyph of the essential nature of that which is
named. Thus knowledge of God is achieved through deciphering the Torah, and
Judaism developed subtle and sophisticated approaches to the hermeneutic enterprise
which are used to this end.
Despite the seemingly outward orientation of the work of exegesis, at the mystical
level the same exegetical activity takes on distinctly inner connotations. In the first
place, Kabbalah holds that God and human are isomorphic (Idel, 2005; Shokek, 2001)
and consequently knowledge of God implicitly implies knowledge of self. Secondly,
the hermeneutic process itself entails an experiential dynamic. The exegete enters into
a state which is considerably more visionary than would normally be associated with
mundane scholarly, interpretive work. Hermeneutics is a practice of the recovery of
vision, writes Boyarin (1990, p. 449). Explicating further, he writes that hermeneutic
practicethe core of Judaismenables the unmediated vision of God's presence to
be recovered.
This distinctive form of hermeneutic practice is termed Midrash. Its centrality to the
very heart of Judaism is symbolically conveyed by the Talmuds statement that the
phrase darosh darash (Leviticus 10:16) comprises the central two words of the Torah
(Kiddushin 30a). It can easily be seen that these words are forms of the Hebrew verbal
root (meaning search or inquire) from which the word Midrash derives. The Torah is
the essence of Judaism, and the hermeneutic process of midrash is the essence of the
Torah. Another allusion conveying the experiential dynamic of midrash comes from a
commentary on the biblical book of Ezekiel noted by Wolfson (1994). Ezekiel begins
with the verse the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. Drawing on
the important exegetical device of gematria (based on the fact that Hebrew letters
have numerical value), the author of the commentary observes that the Hebrew word
niftechu were opened equates numerically to the Hebrew midrash, implying that this
hermeneutic practice opens the path to heaven and enables visions of God.
Boyarin (1990; see also Wolfson, 1994, p. 327; Wolski, 2010, pp. 2-3) cites the
following Midrash as the key source for understanding the experiential dynamic of
hermeneutic practice:
Ben-Azzai was sitting and interpreting [making midrash], and fire was all around
him. They went and told Rabbi Akiva, "Rabbi, Ben- Azzai is sitting and

interpreting, and fire is burning all around him." He went to him and said to him,
"I heard that you were interpreting, and the fire burning all around you." He said,
"Indeed." He said, "Perhaps you were engaged in the inner-rooms of the Chariot
[theosophical speculation]." He said, "No. I was sitting and stringing the words of
Torah [to each other], and the Torah to the Prophets and the Prophets to the
Writings, and the words were as radiant / joyful as when they were given from
Sinai, and they were as sweet as at their original giving. Were they not originally
given in fire, as it is written, 'And the mountain was burning with fire' (Deut.
4:11)?" [Song of Songs Rabbah, p. 42]
There are many fascinating allusions in this Midrash. Suffice it to note here that the
fire surrounding Ben-Azzai is to be understood metaphorically as portraying the
profound inner state achieved through the exegetical imagination. The self-same
experience of the divine as that vouchsafed to those present at the revelation on Mt.
Sinai is available to him through his hermeneutic practice.
My interest in this article focuses on the kinds of inner state conveyed in kabbalistic
literature and how we might understand them in contemporary psychological terms. It
is axiomatic that the states can only be evaluated in relation to the practices through
which they might be achieved. Accordingly, my analysis extends beyond descriptions
of the states themselves into a consideration of the psychological basis of the practices
promulgated in kabbalistic literature by means of which the mystic aspires to these
higher states of consciousness.
In her study of the Zohar, the principal text of the Kabbalah, Hellner-Eshed (2009)
identifies three main states of mystical consciousness: Rose consciousness, Tree of
Life consciousness, and White light consciousness. The naming of the first state as
rose consciousness derives from the Zohars opening discourse on the Rose of the
valley depicted in the biblical Song of Songs. Just as the whole edifice of the Zohar
opens with this metaphor, so rose consciousness is viewed by Hellner-Eshed as the
initial mystical state through which the further states may be accessed. For the Zohar,
the rose depicts the Shekhinah, the feminine face of the divine and divine presence in
the world. Rose consciousness is accordingly the state through which one becomes
aware of the divine presence. There is an intensification of the senses, through which
one discerns an extra quality in the world. The world of the senses is no longer merely
a collection of images; it becomes a rich tapestry through which the ultimate Hand is
The Tree-of-Life consciousness to which rose consciousness opens is named after the
central glyph of the Kabbalah. The Tree of Life depicts the entirety of creation from
the ultimate sourcethe first stirrings to action in the recondite mind of Godto the
final manifestation of the divine presence in the physical universe. For Hellner-Eshed,
this state of consciousness is characterised by centeredness and an inner knowing of
all things; it conveys at one and the same time both the centre of the Tree of Life and
its totality. It is a state of presence and stable clarity, though which one may aspire to
influence the mysterious dynamic of the Godhead.
White-light consciousness brings awareness of the oneness and unity at the heart of all
being. It may be identified with the undifferentiated roots of thought, and depicts the
alignment of the human mind with the amorphous dimension that precedes order and
language (Hellner-Eshed, p. 349). Whereas rose consciousness is depicted as having

a feminine quality and Tree-of-Life consciousness as being masculine, white-light

consciousness transcends any duality associated with gender.
Which of these states might be appropriately applied to Ben-Azzais fire in the
above extract? It is noteworthy that two levels are indicated in the Midrash: The
presence of fire suggests to Rabbi Akiva that Ben-Azzai was involved in the work
of the chariot, a term denoting visionary and mystical practice (and a topic forbidden
to be taught to the kind of group around Ben-Azzai, as implied in the Midrashwhich
is why they brought it to Akivas attention in the first place); Ben-Azzais answer
suggests that his fire was burning on account of less esoteric practice, namely more
normative hermeneutic work. Evidently, there could be two altered states to which the
term fire might be applied: one associated with intensive exoteric hermeneutic work,
and the second entailing esoteric work. An insight into the more esoteric practice may
be discerned in the writings of Abraham Abulafia (1230 after 1291), who notes that
the Hebrew Merkavah (chariot) is etymologically related to the Hebrew word for
combination, harkavah. This allusion connects the work of the chariot with
complex techniques which involve permuting and combining Hebrew letters and the
names of God. A further allusion is given whereby Maase Merkavah, Hebrew for
work of the chariot is shown to be identical numerically with Shem bShem,
meaning Name with name (ie. combining one divine name with another name). One
of Abulafias pupils, Rabbi Gikatilla writes explicitly:
Know that the letters of the Honourable name, whose secret is YHWH are
exchanged by combining them with the letters that follow the letters of the name.
This is the secret of the Merkabah, and you must be aroused concerning the great
matter contained therein (cited in Idel, 1989, p. 51).
I shall return to the esoteric practices described by Abulafia later. For the present I
wish to propose that Ben-Azzais fire, which arises when exoteric hermeneutic work
reaches a peak of intensity, should be identified with rose consciousness. The state
aroused by esoteric combinatorial practice is more appropriately related to Tree-ofLife consciousness. In making these proposals, I am aware that I am bridging between
two strands of Kabbalah that many view as distinctthe sefirotic tradition (which
examines the principles of emanationthe sefirotand the Tree of life through
which the sefirot unfold) and the more ecstatic path involving combining letters and
names. I doubt that these should be treated as wholly separate, especially as far as
states of consciousness are concerned. Whilst the Zohar primarily explicates the Tree
of Life and the sefirot, it is clear that a fascination with mystical states lies within its
pages. I see no reason to doubt that the fraternity depicted in the Zohar experienced
states akin, if not identical, to those associated with the ecstatic strand of Kabbalah.
I suggest that these two states, Rose consciousness and Tree-of-Life consciousness,
are the most interesting from the point-of-view of psychology. The nature of whitelight consciousness cannot effectively be described in terms that have currency within
most schools of psychology. Rose consciousness, by comparison, seems to entail an
intensification of those processes that characterise mundane consciousness, and the
knowing beyond normal bounds associated with Tree-of-Life consciousness may be
the result of the conscious mind gaining access to normally unconscious material. But
what lies behind these statements? My interest here lies in operationalizing these
notions: what are those processes that become intensified in rose-consciousness, and

how do they lead to the opening of unconscious thought which characterises Tree-ofLife consciousness?
In order to answer these questions, I shall first present a model of perception and
memory that enables a detailed analysis of consciousness. The model is presented in
Figure 1, and is more fully explicated in Lancaster (2004). I have elsewhere examined
and refined the models view of the stages of perception in relation to that given in the
Abhidhamma of the Theravada school of Buddhism (Lancaster, 1997). Indeed, a key
feature of the model concerns its attempt to integrate introspective insights such as
those generated in Buddhist schools with data drawn from recent research in cognitive

Figure1. A model of the stages in perception (after Lancaster, 2004).

In brief, the model conceptualises the functions of the feedforward and re-entrant
neural pathways involved in processing of sensory input. The process of feature
analysis generates a neuronal input model which activates structures in memory
having features in common with the current input. In psychological terms, the
activated structures are associations to the input model. It should be noted that this
memory function is preconscious, occurring within the first milliseconds of the input
arriving at the senses. The re-entrant system then becomes involved in an attempt to
match the activated memory structure with the input model. If it matches then it is
selected for inclusion in what I call the I-narrative, and other activated associations
become inhibited. The term I-narrative is intended to convey the fact that on-going
perception is effectively a narrative construction in which the central feature is the
ego, or I. It should be noted that I is viewed not as a substantive pre-existing entity

but rather as a kind of hypothesis constructed by the interpretative systems to give

retrospective coherence to the on-going mental activity (see Lancaster, 2004 for
As far as consciousness is concerned, it is only the output of the entire system that
may be identified with normal, mundane consciousness. However, I identify different
dimensions of consciousness, each of which is associated with a specific stage in the
model, as illustrated in Figure 2. The essence of consciousness, its phenomenality, is
present from the time the input model is constituted. The activation of preconscious
associations entails a form of intentionality which I identify with Freuds notion of the
primary process. Accordingly I term it intentionality 1. Intentionality 2, by contrast, is
the dimension relating to the match between input model and activated associations. It
is reality-oriented, corresponding to Freuds secondary process. Finally, accessibility
represents the output, the I-narrative. This dimension is paramount in the form of
consciousness that Block (1995) identifies as access consciousness. These dimensions
are, as it were, cumulative in the sense that when I am conscious of some object (such
as the pen in Figure 1), intentionality 2 is directly expressed in my field of experience,
intentionality 1 carries the associations to the object but these remain inaccessible to
the I-narrative, and phenomenality pervades the whole experience. A crucial point to
note is that recognising these differing dimensions of consciousness overcomes the
problematic distinction between conscious and unconscious realms of mind. The
associations activated by the input model, for example, are not strictly unconscious
but they are inaccessible to the I-narrative.

Figure 2. Dimensions of consciousness

I have argued that mystical states of consciousness arise when there is a shift in the
way we identify with these dimensions of consciousness. Normally, we identify

almost exclusively with the accessibility dimension; that is to say that we are fully
identified with our I-narrative. It seems to me that mystical states involve relative
detachment from the I-narrative and a concomitant increase in awareness of the
preceding stage in which sensory input and memory structures become matched
and/or the earlier stage involving activity in the associative stage. As illustrated in
Figure 3, what this effectively means is that mystical states are associated with a shift
in the leading edge of consciousness. Logically speaking, such a shift must entail an
attenuation of activity in the end-stage and/or an augmentation of activity in the stage
to which the shift is directed, namely the associative stage. In terms of classical
spiritual practices, the former arises through meditation directed at stilling the mind,
and the latter entails insight, or contemplative, practices in which disciplined
exploration of associations is encouraged.

Figure 3. The effects of spiritual practice.

Armed with the above model and my operationalization of the effects of spiritual
practice, I can now return to the states of consciousness found in Jewish mysticism.
An immediate set of parallels presents itself since I have identified three dimensions
of consciousness in addition to that of accessibility which dominates the normal Ifocused state, and Hellner-Eshed (2009) argues that the Zohar portrays three mystical
states of consciousness. Beyond the simple concordance of number here, the real issue
is whether the putative correspondences encompass the features of experience that, on
the one hand, would accompany the dimensions of consciousness I identify, and, on
the other, characterise the Zohars mystical states. In other words, my real interest
concerns whether operationalization of the effects of spiritual practice as conceived in

the model might meaningfully be applied to the mystical states identified by HellnerEshed.
I am proposing that each of the dimensions of consciousness will dominate a specific
state of consciousness (Figure 4). In the normal state, accessibility is dominant. It is
important to note that accessibility in the context of this model concerns the ability of
the narrative I to access information according to its needs and desires. Thus, for
example, in an everyday conversational mode, I might be conscious not only of the
words spoken by others, but also of the ramifications of their words in relation to my
own interests and of the various ways in which I might assert myself more strongly in
order to achieve those goals I deem valuable. Such consciousness entails accessing all
the information relevant to those concerns. The egocentric orientation of the accessing
that is taking place in such contexts should be evident from reflection on ones own
mundane experience.

Figure 4. Dimensions of consciousness and corresponding altered states of


There is a feature of the above figures which I have not yet explained that comes in at
this point. I have proposed a tagging system whereby information present in any
given moment of consciousness becomes stored in conjunction with the I-model that
had been constructed at that time. In effect the I-model becomes a tag attached to the
memory. Accordingly, I refer to it as an I-tag (see figures above). Whilst this posited

I-tag system can be instructive in relation to spiritual and mystical notions of the
intractability of egocentric states, it was advanced in the first place (Lancaster, 1991,
1993) to account for extensive observations in cognitive neuroscience on the nature of
implicit memory. In short, the evidence suggests that apparent disorders of memory
may arise from inconsistencies in the I-tagging system rather than failures of
information storage per se. Details of this need not concern us here; I simply wish to
stress the role of the I-tag system in effecting the ability of a current construction of
I to access those schemata which can enhance consolidation of its own status.
If the role of the I-narrative is attenuated, the centre of consciousness shifts to the
left one step, moving from the normal state of consciousness (NSoC) to altered state
of consciousness 1 (ASoC 1). As portrayed in Figure 4, ASoC 1 will be characterised
by intentionality 2 in the absence of the narrative I, meaning that the accessing of
egocentric information (as in the above example of a conversational scenario) will be
attenuated. An individual in ASoC 1 will be focused on the immediate object of
attention without distraction by diverse associations or by thoughts deriving from the
narrative I. The state might best be captured by referring to it as a mindful state of
A further leftward shift leads to ASoC 2, in which intentionality 1 becomes dominant.
The state would be similar to ASoC 1 inasmuch as egocentric thinking attaching to
the narrative I is attenuated, but differs from the first altered state to the extent that
associational activity dominates. ASoC 2 would accordingly be characterised by the
same level of focus as in ASoC 1 but the individual would be focusing on diverse
associations to the primary object of attention. To anticipate somewhat the argument
below, the kind of ecstatic hermeneutic activity discussed earlier as characterising
Jewish mystical approaches would exemplify SoC 2.
Finally, ASoC 3 entails phenomenality in the absence of intentionality, which means a
contentless state of consciousness. As mentioned earlier, there is little that can be said
about such a state from the psychological point-of-view. The origin of phenomenality
remains a mystery; there are no definitive studies of brain function, for example, that
would enable us to assert unequivocally that phenomenality is uniquely a function of
the brain. Phenomenality may be generated by neurones, but equally it may be a
fundamental property of the universe and/or derive from a realm that is transcendent
to physical reality. We simply do not know.
To what extent do these altered states correspond to the states described by HellnerEshed (2009) on the basis of her close analysis of the Zohar? Correlations of this kind
can be notoriously problematic in that one set of parameters can be made to fit with
another where there is weak specification of the parameters and potential bias on the
part of the one making the fit. I cannot exclude my bias (to the extent that I would
obviously like to see my model supported by the evidence from analysis of Jewish
mystical states), but I do claim that the operationalization of neural and cognitive
events in the model and the level of insight Hellner-Eshed brings to her analysis lend
a distinctive value in the correspondences suggested here.
The intensively hermeneutic orientation of most kabbalistic work might suggest that it
is the augmentation of associative activity as depicted in Figure 3 that characterises
the tradition. Indeed, the phrase wheel of words / letters which I placed around the

figural representation of the associations to sensory input derives specifically from

ideas promulgated within the kabbalistic tradition (see Lancaster, 2005). The 13thcentury Sefer ha-Bahir encourages the mystic to probe into the concealed meanings of
words by exploring what it terms the wheel of each word, clearly an allusion to the
associations that revolve around the word. In an earlier work, the Sefer Yetsirah, this
wheel imagery is applied to the Hebrew letters. God is portrayed as realising the work
of creation through permuting the letters:
He placed them in a wheel . The wheel revolves forwards and backwards.
How? He permuted them, weighed them, and transformed them. Alef [the first
letter] with them all and all of them with alef; bet [second letter] with them all and
all of them with bet (Sefer Yetsirah 2:4-5).
At the same time as depicting the linguistic technique by means of which God creates
His world, the Sefer Yetsirah encourages the mystic to emulate the divine, giving rise
to esoteric practices involving intensive ways of permuting and combining letters, as
mentioned earlier in my discussion of Ben Azzais state of consciousness symbolised
by fire. To repeat my conclusion from the earlier discussion, associative practice lies
at the root of the two altered states of consciousness captured by the terms rose and
Tree-of-Life, the former brought about by intensive, yet normative, hermeneutic
activity and the latter engendered by anomian concentrative techniques involving
esoteric working with divine names and letter permutation. Here is not the place to go
into extensive detail, but it will be clear to anyone who reads Abulafias works that a
fluid associative faculty is central to these latter practices.
Connecting this with the model presented in the above figures, it seems evident that in
the Jewish tradition the leftward shift representing a move into mystical states of
consciousness is strongly driven by augmenting the associative process. I suggest that
rose consciousness equates to ASoC 1 in Figure 4. Hellner-Eshed (2009) specifies
intensification of perception and emotion, and augmentation of associative processes
as being amongst the key properties of rose consciousness. These changes accord with
what I would predict for ASoC 1 inasmuch as this state includes heightened focus on
the perceptual objectsthe matched schemata in the figurewith little distraction by
the ruminations of the I-narrative. Whilst my model does not deal with emotion, it is
reasonable to assume that the attenuation of the I-narrative would similarly increase
focus on emotion.
The next correspondence to consider is that between ASoC 2 and Tree-of-Life
consciousness. In asserting the appropriateness of this correspondence I have in mind
the richer sense of knowing and sense of engagement in the dynamics of the Godhead
as specified by Hellner-Eshed. ASoC 2 is a state bringing increased contact with the
unconscious (Lancaster, 2004), akin, for example, to the state accessed through active
imagination in Jungs scheme of the psyche and the process of individuation. Due to
the limitations of a static representation, the figures cannot capture the extensive
ramifications of the associative process. The associations depicted in the figures are
simply trivial connections to a mundane stimulus at a single moment. In reality the
associations should be understood as comprising a panoply of ever-changing images,
which are inaccessible from the NSoC. It is this process of accessing such normally
unconscious imagery and, more especially, of making controlled contact with the
effervescent process that continually activates complex associations, which, I suggest,

brings the sense of a wider sphere of knowledge to the individual experiencing ASoC
I think we can gain additional insights into ASoC 2 / Tree-of-Life consciousness by
considering further the complex linguistic practices advocated by Abulafia. His goal
is attainment of prophetic consciousness, which Idel (1986, 1989) conceptualises as
an expansion of the mind. Again, to put it in psychological terms, such expansion may
be aligned with an opening to previously unconscious dynamics. I do not mean this to
imply some rather limited Freudian-style notion of repressed content. Rather I have in
mind a state in which complex associations can be exploredthe mind opening to a
wider field of cognition, as it were. I have explored elsewhere (Lancaster, 2000, 2004)
the reasons why specifically linguistic esoteric practices may be especially potent and
eventuate in this widening of cognitive functioning. In essence, language structures
the cognitive connections which define our mundane sense of ego and world. The Itags are like knots, to use one of the terms Abulafia applied in this context, that bind
us to a limited scale of being, and language is the ropeto extend the analogythat
connect the knots. Deconstruction of languageas brought about by the intensive
techniques of breaking words into lettersmight be conceived as deconstructing the
ego and its world. The esoteric working with the divine names in this deconstructed
state reties the knots to a higher level of being:

... Man is [tied] in the knots of world, year and soul [i.e., space, time and persona]
in which he is tied in nature, and if he unties the knots from himself, he may
cleave to He who is above them.
He must link and change a name with a name, and renew a matter, to tie the
loosened and to loosen the tied, using known names, in their revolutions with the
twelve signs and the seven stars, and with the three elements, until the one tying
and loosening will strip off from the stringencies of the prohibited and permitted,
and dress a new form for the prohibited and permitted (extracts from Abulafias
works, cited in Idel, 1988, pp. 135 and 136-137).
What is the new form to which the mystic aspires according to Aulafia? The goal of
esoteric practice for Abulafia is a level of intellect which is divine in scale, namely the
Active Intellect, and it is only when operating from here that the mystic can initiate
new forms. In this extract the new form would seem to involve insights affecting the
normative practice of religion. Elsewhere there are suggestions of creating a new
universe (Idel, 1989, p. 103), intimating the more magical nature of these practices.
From the perspective of the model advanced here, the untying of I-tags frees the
mind from its limited mode of operation. Experientially, this facilitates an expansion
of self (Pappas & Friedman, 2007), understood not as ego inflation but as a widening
of the field of awareness. Whether freeing the mind from egocentric functioning is all
there is to the highest mystical states must remain an open question. Should we regard
the Active Intellect as no more than an outmoded metaphor, or might there be levels
of intellect ontologically distinct from the brain? These are questions that take us
beyond the reach of models based in psychology. My notion of an indexing system
that is central to the content of consciousness need not in itself limit our horizons; it
may be that immersion in the world of divine names substitutes, as it were, a higherorder tagging system than that dominated by I-tags, since the divine is an ocean of
unlimited potentiality.


Ultimately, of course, neuro-cognitive explanations appear to impose reductive limits

on the value of the kinds of higher states to which practices such as Abulafias are
directed. However, the question can reasonably be asked as to whether the brain state
generates the mystical state of consciousness or is some kind of necessary receiving
condition for the higher level of mind (cf. Fingelkurts & Fingelkurts, 2009). From the
kabbalistic perspective all is built on correspondence: the lower reflects the higher and
the higher may be known through understanding the lower (Lancaster, 2011, in press).
Let me close, therefore, by emphasising that assigning links between features in my
neuro-cognitively-based model and various mystical states of consciousness does not
imply reductionism. The neuro-cognitive processes conceptualised as underpinning
ASoC 2 may be all there is to this state or they may furnish us with a valuable key for
understanding and tuning into a more profound level of intellect than that normally
active. It is doubtful that any contemporary term does justice to that profound fount of
knowing and being which the mediaeval mystics had in mind by their term, Active
Intellect. Perhaps what you cannot name, you cannot know. But that which may stand
just beyond the reach of psychologically-grounded explanatory models should not be
discounted when exploring the interface between psychology and mysticism.

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