Medicine Tree: Psychedelic Qabalah for a Modern Psychonaut

This is an introduction to using the Qabalah as a framework for psychedelic exploration.

There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these…drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge.”

– Alan Watts, The Joyous Cosmology

The idea of psychedelic drugs or plant medicines used in conjunction with a spiritual practice is one that is highly debated. Instant enlightenment can certainly be a tough idea to sell to those that have dedicated their lives to spiritual practices. There is a level of difference in the path walked, no doubt. Yet with the rise of psychedelic scientific research and the growing acceptance of psychedelic religions around the world, from the Native American Church to the Santo Daime, one can easily forget that a practice of self-development, spiritual or otherwise, can be quite beneficial to the psychonaut. The drug is not necessarily a path to enlightenment in and of itself, as the myriad of “bad trip” reports have shown us. But the inverse is not necessarily true either. Drugs have been demonstrably shown to be tools of enlightenment, spirituality, and positive change.

One area of spiritual practice that is likely to be overlooked by the average psychonaut is the Qabalah. The Hermetic Qabalah in particular. Beyond the circles of underground occultists and chaos magicians, the Qabalah to many comes with a lot of religious baggage because of its associations with Jewish belief or, God forbid, pop culture. But what if the concept of the Tree of Life, that poetic structure of manifestation and creation of the universe that stands at the center of the Qabalah, were to be a fitting symbol for the psychedelic experience? I propose that it is indeed THE psychedelic symbol psychonauts and modern spiritualists are searching. It exists as both a philosophy and as a practical spiritual methodology the psychonaut can use to “know thyself.” From pathworking to astral projection, dream interpretation to creating art, the toolbox of the modern Qabalistic magician holds the keys to understanding and integrating the psychedelic experience.

Psychedelic Experience

The psychedelic experience is characterized generally as the rise to peak experience, and then the slow hallucinatory descent to normal reality again. But as anyone who has ever done drugs, such as LSD, Psilocybin Mushrooms or Ayahuasca, the experience tends to fluctuate a bit more than this. There are repetitions of rising and falling, back and forth, eventually to the peak and back down to baseline again. Navigating this is usually left to the shaman, the psychologist, or the experienced psychonaut.

In 1964, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead was released. Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, psychedelic pioneers of their day, created a system of navigating the different phases of the psychedelic experience to help the explorers of what was the new spiritual paradigm. LSD had become the sacrament of western culture incredibly fast, quickly moving beyond the scientific and therapeutic setting to the social and recreational. Seen as an exoteric interpretation of the death process in the Buddhist belief structure, the Tibetan Book of the Dead had been reinterpreted in the esoteric light of ego death and rebirth through the lens of mystical psychology. Distinguished as three phases, they had begun trying to map the experience. The first phase is seen as complete transcendence, which was “beyond words, beyond space-time, beyond self.” The second phase involved self and was characterized through hallucinations, otherwise known as external game reality. The third phase is seen as the return to the self and game reality. Yet the experience is not static. It does not conform to the map in practice. The mind is known to “flick in and out of these three levels with rapid oscillation.” Indeed this book was the user manual to which psychedelic explorers in the 1960s used to navigate their own minds.

While this book has been of great influence since its publication, the modern Qabalistic Tree of Life I believe serves as an even greater (dare I say “all-encompassing”) map. It can be used to create structure, to help gauge experiences, and to assist in integration afterwards. The structural aspect is perfect for those looking for more of a ceremonial vibe, while gauging and integrating the experience is one of the most important aspects of psychedelic exploration for everyone involved.

Tree of Life

First, I’d like to discuss generally the Qabalistic Tree of Life for those not familiar and go over the philosophy behind it. The Tree of Life is one of the most common archetypes in the collective unconscious and can be found manifesting in many different cultures. Hinduism had the Eternal Banyan Tree, and the Norse traditions had Yggdrasil. The Tree of Life connects all forms of creation together. Within modern Qabalah the Tree of Life is known as Etz Chaim, which is also a common word for Yeshiva (learning institution) or Synagogue (house of prayer). If the Tree of Life is the entire universe, both manifest and unmanifest, then Etz Chaim is a reference to the universe as a place of learning and prayer.

Tree_of_life

Traditional Jewish Kabbalah has been a major influence to modern day occultism and magick. Stemming from an ancient Judaic oral tradition, passed on generationally, it was only written down in the 16th century. Hermetic magicians, Gnostics and alchemists alike took hold of it, added to it, and reinterpreted it within the greater scope of Gnostic and alchemical philosophy. This resulted in the Hermetic Qabalah. It is, in essence, the product of Renaissance alchemists and mystics, blending together Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, and pagan mysticism into a practical spiritual whole. The spelling of Qabalah (Hermetic) vs Kabbalah (Jewish) is commonly used to indicate which tradition you are referring. It differs in structure and practice from traditional Jewish Kabbalah/Torah study. The biggest difference is that the Hermetic Qabalah uses a system of correspondences, which through the idea of sympathetic magic as developed by Sir James Frazer, brings things together that have a commonality. This is where you get all manner of multicultural deities, magick, tarot, astrology, plant medicine, states of consciousness, visionary experience and much more all blended together through the idea of sympathetic magic. This is indeed what makes it a great map of the psychedelic experience.

The Tree of Life is a diagram showing a series of spheres, called sephiroth, connected by lines, called paths. The sephiroth are defined as emanations that are representative of spiritual archetypes and states of consciousness, from the most compact (think the universe pre-big bang) to the the most diverse (think the universe now).  It is in essence showing the descent of light from unity towards the many forms of physical manifestation. While considered cosmic in scope, these sephiroth are also found within the psyche. Studying the Tree of Life is to study the changes in consciousness that results from traversing the cosmic emanations and pathways of creation. The depth of this work can be summed up in the ancient alchemical axiom “as above, so below.” We are microcosmic reflections of the macrocosmic universe.

The Psychedelic Tree

So how does the psychedelic experience relate to the Tree of Life? As a map, it is meant to contain the entirety of existence and all its possibilities, including states of consciousness and being. The Qabalah as viewed through a modern lense is a vast system of correspondences. These are meant to show the “interconnectedness” of all things within the universe, mundane or otherwise, and it is these correspondences that are the hallmark of modern Qabalah. If we are to view it from the psychological model that permeates postmodern magick practice, each sephirah is a state of being that corresponds to any number external manifestations of that energy. Each path is associated with a traditional planet, a zodiacal sign, an element and  more, and manifests in the same way as the sephiroth. The paths connect two sephiroth usually as a blend of how these two energies work together.

What is most interesting is that there is a place for all things. Different psychedelic drugs are going to have different effects on the psychonaut and there is room for this on the modern Tree of Life. Smoking Cannabis might open up a state of extreme creativity and can be placed within the sphere of Netzach, which is associated with art, love, and passion. It also is associated with the planet Venus. Perhaps the psychonaut is stuck in a thought loop. We can place them within the sphere of  Hod, which is associated with the intellectual process. It has an affinity to the planet Mercury, which in mythological lore is associated with Hermes Trismegistus, the mythological father of modern magick. In the case of being stuck in a thought loop, it would be Hod imbalanced.  Smoking DMT might lift a person straight into the fractal realms of the astral plane (Yesod) and launch them towards a breakthrough/rebirth experience (Tiphareth). Even the experiences of the void (Daath) or of the ineffable “no-thing” has its place (Kether). It’s important to note that we are predominantly operating through multiple spheres simultaneously.

Categorically the Tree of Life has numerous lists of associations in which to gauge a specific experience. In the case of something like a bad trip or confusing imagery, one first places the experience in the appropriate sphere of emanation to which your mind was accessing at the time. Following this one can utilize any number of different aspects of the appropriate sphere to reharmonize and integrate the experience. So there is a method of organizing an otherwise abstract or ineffable experience. In other cases where the experience may fall into multiple spheres, we can look to the paths that connect the spheres. These paths will give great insight into the type of mental process one must go through to harmonize the experience.

The same process works for Qabalistic dream interpretation. It is actually a very similar process to dreaming that we have psychedelic visualizations. The philosophy underlying the Qabalah is that there is a higher version of ourselves, sometimes called the Holy Guardian Angel by the spiritual or the Higher Genius by the psychologist (I’ll leave it up to you to decide which terminology you want to use). Using the example of vibrations, this Higher Self would be the equivalent to our consciousness on a higher octave. In between you and this Higher Self there is a complete storehouse of memories, emotions and images that come from the experiences you have had in life. And behind this is our genetic, or familial, memory, which can add many levels of archetypal symbolism and meaning to a memory or image within this storehouse.

When we are having a visionary experience, our lower consciousness is having a conversation with our higher consciousness, using the storehouse of images and memories as the language. I define the visionary experience as consisting of meaningful/relatable imagery and in the case of Ayahuasca/DMT it tends to be with otherworldly intelligences. This communication commonly results in “aha” moments. These are those moments that occur specifically on “heroic doses”, according to psychedelic pioneer Terrence McKenna. In one sense, the language of our psychedelic experience comes from the contents of our mind, but it also operates within cultural contexts. The Qabalah being a large aspect of the Western Mystery Tradition, it would make sense that much of this symbolism can be found in our subconscious.

Understanding this process as a form of self exploration is what I call the Qabalah of Self (which I will go into in a later post). This is essentially a post-modern magickal practice wherein we determine the symbols that define our being.

20131219_123342-1
From Dale Pendell’s “Pharmakognosis”

Practices

The case of Zen is especially pertinent here, for it pivots on all enlightenment experience – satori or kensho – which some (but not all) Zennists say resembles LSD. Alike or different, the point is that Zen recognizes that unless the experience is joined to discipline, it will come to naught…even the Buddha had to sit.” – Huston Smith

Now it’s important to talk about modern practical exercises that aid greatly in navigating inner space on psychedelics. I should note this is not about controlling the visionary experience, but rather learning to surf on the waves of consciousness. The techniques I will be talking about are common amongst modern day magicians to learn how to access the subconscious mind and to go deeper into meaningful visionary experience.

The first technique I’d like to talk about is a meditation technique called pathworking. It is commonly considered a guided meditation along the pathways that connect the sephiroth together. Therefore this term is specific to the Qabalah. It differs from basic Zen meditation wherein one is purposely engaging the mental imagery within their mind. Some groups have referred it to magical imagination. What separates it from something like daydreaming is that as we consciously engage with the mind we are seeking meaningful visionary experiences. As stated before these are commonly associated with “aha” moments characterized by meaningful or personal revelation. Pathworking is a way to consciously engage the cosmic aspects of the Tree of Life to reveal the microcosmic reflections within the human psyche.

Traditionally one would start at the bottom of the Tree of Life and meditate their way upwards along what is called the Path of the Serpent. In this way they are able to familiarize themselves with the concepts, filling in archetypal ideas in advance of psychedelic work. Commonly a pathworking is done in a group setting with someone guiding the meditation. However, this isn’t always possible. One can certainly find pre-recorded pathworkings online, and there are many books out there on the subject, but this should serve only as preliminary practice to learn in time how to do it for oneself. When working with a psychedelic one tends to be wandering through the forest of their subconscious. The movement through this vast ocean leads to many strange experiences to which can be mapped upon the Tree of Life. This leads to the next practice that is vital for navigating psychedelic space. This is known as astral projection.

In Qabalistic philosophy each person emanates an auric field of light. This aura is known as the body of light. In mediumistic traditions this is known as the peri-spirit. The movement of our body of light used with concentrated effort is a practice that can take a long time to master. To begin one must sit comfortably and begin to see with their mind’s eye the auric field that envelops them. I usually start by visualizing in my mind the room I am in, including myself. With the eyes closed lift up your hand slowly and visualize the movement in your mind. Put your hand back down. Now do this again but only in your mind. Engaging this mental image of ourselves is the most efficient way to begin working with the astral plane.

Once this image is stable begin to travel forward with the body of light holding the visualization steady. In relation to pathworking one visualizes themselves traveling through archetypal temple spaces, natural environments, or the divine realms specific to the sephiroth or experience at hand. One can even do this with real life locations rather than Qabalistic imagery. This practice greatly lends itself to psychic exploration and psychedelics spaces. The ebb and flow of the drug takes practice to learn how to work with effectively. Ayahuasca or DMT for example can come on quite quickly and overpower the beginner, flooding them with archetypal or alien imagery. Those skilled in astral projection and pathworking will have the benefit of knowing how to engage this as it is occurring. This can add greatly to the psychedelic visionary experience that is common with Ayahuasca and DMT.  

This type of meditation lends itself greatly to working with Cannabis. This plant medicine tends to be more commonly used, but I feel it should be placed among the plant masters. The effects of Cannabis can be quite profound in higher doses and it is safe to use regularly with low doses. The use of Cannabis within a magickal meditation can be quite powerful. Of course, one should likely try to engage these practices at baseline consciousness so as to become familiar with the process.

The last technique, which might be the most important of all, is journaling. Keeping a record of dreams, emotions, and experiences is important in the integration phase of psychedelic exploration. Artists may want to keep sketches and musicians may want to recreate the audio ambience of the experience. In many traditional shamanistic cultures it is important to first allow the experience to have its effect unimpeded by intellectual understanding. This is usually for the first few days to few weeks after a psychedelic experience. After this time period we can begin to dissect it, taking note of important images and messages that arose. This is especially so for common themes or motifs that we may encounter over time. However, it is important to learn how to discern what is best for your practice.

I would like to note that it is important to allow a period of integration between psychonautical exploration. This is both for safety reasons and to allow the initial experience to blossom within your life. This is particularly so with Ayahuasca, DMT, and Psilocybin.

A modern magician is usually expected to keep a written record of their pathworking and meditation exercises as they become important points of reflection for future works. This journal should only be used for exploration of consciousness through psychedelic exploration, dreaming and meditation.

All three of these exercises require patience, practice and regularity. Over time they will serve to help us understand that inner Qabalah, the Qabalah of self, which we explore as psychonauts. It is very important that we record our experiences with an open mind as we encounter intangible and ineffable experiences. In the Qabalah the imagination is just as real has the experience we have with waking, or base line, consciousness. Remember that ideas can have profound effects on those that listen.

What’s next?

I hope now you can see the depth of this work. The practical application is actually quite limitless as it contains all possibilities and permutations that we can imagine. Maybe even more so. In a postmodern sense, the Tree of Life is an open-ended construct that makes room for mystery and the unknown, all the while helping us organize our thoughts, emotions, and energies.

This was a short introduction to Qabalistic philosophy and its practical applications within the realm of psychedelic exploration. The next steps would be to create a schedule of regular meditation practice, going deeper into the emanations of the Tree of Life. But it is important to remember that while the Qabalistic tradition is a spiritual language to convey experiences to other practitioners, we are ultimately on a journey of self discovery. For this reason we must be open to creating our own system of correspondences and our own maps.

8 thoughts on “Medicine Tree: Psychedelic Qabalah for a Modern Psychonaut”

  1. Very thorough and engaging – great post!!

    May I offer a suggestion? The word “drug” felt a little triggering to me as I was reading since there’s lots of negative associations with this word in our society – maybe use “entheogen” instead in the future: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entheogen 😊

    Looking forward to the next post!

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    1. Thank you for the comment, Carly. Your aversion to the word is understandable. I tried to clarify what I mean by drug in the first paragraph with “Drugs have been demonstrably shown to be tools of enlightenment, spirituality, and positive change.” I am speaking generally here when I am talking about drugs, plant medicines, entheogens, and other psychoactive substances. I know that Ayahuasca, for example, is not a drug in the explicit sense of the word. My use of the word drug should not be misconstrued with the assumption that it might not have any medical or spiritual value. Thank you, I will take this comment into consideration in future writings.

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    1. Thank you for this Soror. This is very interesting. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I’d like to put together another post that brings together different models of this and how different entheogens can be placed on the Tree of Life. I’ve come across a number of different versions over the past couple of years. I’ll be sure to take a closer look at yours. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

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