Kabbalah book

The Faces of God: a Kabbalistic “myth” and Its Implications for Consciousness

The following chapter – The Faces of God: a Kabbalistic “myth” and Its Implications for Consciousness1 – written by B. Les Lancaster*, features in Perspectives on Consciousness (2021), edited by Paul Dennison.


Mystical writings embed insights into the nature of consciousness within the theological frame of the parent religion. Theories of consciousness and its ontology can gain from these insights to the extent that they present first-person data about conscious states and processes generally obscured from everyday introspections. Differences across spiritual and mystical traditions ramify into differing nuances in the features of consciousness explored in their texts. The Jewish mystical tradition emphasises levels within the ontology of being and the dynamics of bridging the levels – corresponding to the subject-matter of depth psychology.

I explore the symbolic expression of this emphasis on levels and their interactions as codified in the pre-eminent kabbalistic text, the Zohar. The Zohar’s imagery centres on two divine “faces” and the dynamics through which they can align “face-to-face”. Alignment is dependent on the roles of other players in this cosmic drama – the Shekhinah (divine feminine) and humankind. The human role is one of preparing the Shekhinah to be bride to the lower of the two divine faces (male divine). With sexual union, lower and higher divine faces align, and the beneficent influx flows from the highest realm throughout all levels.

This “kabbalistic myth” presents an operational pattern that stresses reflexivity: an impulse from below promotes alignment above, eventuating in the reflexive flux. An analogous pattern characterises brain systems involved in perception and the individuation process as conceived by Jung, suggesting that the pattern is fractal in nature. The universe is a large-scale version of this reflexivity, reflecting knowledge of itself back to its source. Analysis of the kabbalistic myth further suggests a non-materialist perspective on consciousness in which phenomenality – the capacity for experience – is a property of the universe as a whole, and two further dimensions of consciousness – intentionality and self-reference – are infused with phenomenality through the reflexive pattern.

The value of mysticism for consciousness research

It is taught: The Book of Concealment is the book [describing that which is] weighed in the balance; for before there was balance, they did not gaze face-to-face.

– Zohar 2:176b, as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 5, pp. 535, 545. Translation modified

These words form the opening of the Book of Concealment, one of the more cryptic sections of the major work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar.2 The allusion in the extract is to two “faces” of God3 that are emanated from the infinite divine essence. The overriding interest, as further explored in other sections of the Zohar, lies with these two notions of balance and alignment (“gazing face-to-face”). The two divine faces are viewed as attaining their intended alignment when the lower of the two, a male conformation, is joined “face-to-face” with a third player in this intra-divine drama, the Shekhinah, the divine feminine. The kabbalist’s path is one of promoting the correct alignment between the intra-divine entities, for the Shekhinah unites with the male divine only when aroused through appropriate human action, understood as involving correct behaviour in religious practice and engaging with kabbalistic study of the Torah4 that uncovers its hidden dimension. The term “face-to-face” has a sexual connotation, and the balance to which the book is directed is attained ultimately through the unification of masculine and feminine principles, both divine and human.

Elsewhere, the authors of the Zohar elaborate on the human role in this cosmic drama: The primordial human, Adam, was created as an androgenous being with male and female faces. As originally created, the two faces were unable to gaze at one another – Rabbinic writings have the male and female conjoined “back-to-back” (Midrash, Bereishit Rabba 8:1).5 Only when the man and woman were separated was the potential for face-to-face contact realised. And face-to-face alignment between Adam and Eve becomes the necessary condition for the higher faces to align: “When the one below was arrayed, and they turned face-to-face, then so it was above” (Zohar 1:35a, as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 1, p. 218).

This dynamic through which alignment in the human realm promotes alignment between divine faces is a specific formulation of a recurring theme in the Zohar’s narrative—that an “impulse from below brings forth the impulse above”; this theme is a dominant feature of what we might call the kabbalistic myth. It is a myth in the sense that it presents a profound representation of the human place in the scheme of things. Whilst the myth was clearly viewed by the authors of the Zohar as penetrating into the nature of God and the human input into the dynamics of the godhead, the myth, and its elaborations over subsequent phases of the Kabbalah, have also been analysed for their symbolic depiction of both the social and cultural experience of the authors (Scholem, 1941/1961), and the psychological dynamics of the human condition (Drob, 2010; Lancaster, 2008). My interest in this chapter concerns the significance of the myth for our understanding of consciousness.

For emanative schemes such as that of the Kabbalah, consciousness is rooted in the One that is undiminished in initiating the emanations. Given the hierarchical perspective intrinsic to such Neoplatonic systems, consciousness flows from above to below. Wolfson (2006, p. 167) thus insists that a core feature of kabbalistic ontology is the conviction that, “the nature of being cannot be separated from consciousness.” The monotheistic root from which Kabbalah derives underpins the continuation of his point in that, “one being, portrayed as infinite light, ineffable name, and limitless thought permeates all beings.”

There would seem to be a tension between this unconditional flow of consciousness from the source of emanation, and the implication of the kabbalistic myth, namely that the divine flow is conditional on conduct that promotes alignment in the divine faces. The argument I intend to put forward in this chapter is that this tension may be resolved by recognising differing aspects to consciousness. The “infinite light” unconditionally permeating all beings would equate to the essence of consciousness, phenomenality. It is the inner life of all that is. Phenomenality is the mysterious core to consciousness, the essence that renders what would otherwise be a merely mechanical process an experience with subjective qualities. The teaching of the divine faces, on the other hand, depicts consciousness as it arises when organised constellations in the psyche are in associative relationship with each other. The “gazing” between faces portrayed in the kabbalistic myth is the ground plan for a more attentive watching that connotes intention and rapport between organised constellations of being. My argument is that the kabbalistic myth attests that there are two such organised constellations of being at the human, as well as the divine, level in the hierarchy, a “lower” and a “higher” expression of self. Where phenomenality flows from “above to below”, intentionality (Brentano, 1874/1973) – meaning the aboutness of consciousness, the content that is present in consciousness – depends on a “below to above” dynamic.

The fundamental pattern expressed in the kabbalistic myth, that an impulse from below is necessary before there can be an impulse from above, is found in microcosmic form in the workings of the human brain. Sensory input initiates activation of feedforward neural pathways which proceed from the brain’s receiving areas for the specific sense system. According to the recurrent processing theory (Lamme, 2006, 2010)—one of the contenders for a neuroscientific theory of consciousness (Northoff and Lamme, 2020)—activity in these feedforward pathways does not eventuate in conscious perception unless recurrent pathways are activated. Recurrent neural pathways course back from the higher processing areas of the brain to modulate feedforward activity. In other words, consciousness is understood in this materialist theory as arising through a form of reflexive arc; stimulation from the world via our senses initiates neural activity leading from lower to higher processing regions of the brain,6 but it is only when the arc is completed by the higher impacting on the lower that the person can become conscious of the sensory input.

I have elsewhere examined the recurrent processing theory of consciousness in more detail (Lancaster, 2011a, 2011b). Here I simply wish to allude to the operating pattern that seems to resonate with this core principle of the kabbalistic scheme articulated in the Zohar, that an impulse from below is necessary for alignment above, which then brings about an influx from above to below. The scale is vastly different, in the macrocosmic case it is a divine influx of abundance or “blessing”; in the microcosmic case it is an influx of meaning—for the meaning of whatever is stimulating our senses is not in the sensory array but in the cognitive systems that we must assume are driving the recurrent activity. Meaning imbues the otherwise mechanical pattern recognition process with the quality of experience. But the difference of scale does not detract from the correspondence: The macrocosmic pattern is recapitulated in the pattern in the microcosm of the brain.

My analysis of the kabbalistic myth and its implications for our understanding of consciousness is primarily directed at one core question: Can we construct approaches to consciousness that incorporate research data from cognitive neuroscience whilst breaking with the worldview of materialism that dominates the scientific approach? Whilst the kabbalistic myth may be a relic of a mystical framework that has little direct relevance for most researchers interested in a contemporary perspective on consciousness, my analysis will illustrate that its core elements can be related to theories about consciousness in meaningful ways. Moreover, the myth’s overarching context of panentheism (Scholem, 1941/1961), has recently been presented as a serious alternative to theories that hold consciousness to be a product solely of material processes (Kelly, 2015; Murphy, 2015).

Over recent years, a number of voices have championed non-materialist approaches to science in general, and psychology in particular (Beauregard et al., 2014; Beauregard et al., 2018: Kelly et al., 2007; Kelly et al., 2015). The argument for a non-materialist approach draws in part from challenges to materialism from quantum mechanics, and in part from the accumulation of data relating to “psi phenomena”, near- death experiences, and other research suggesting that consciousness is not limited to the material brain. An additional factor for a non-materialist perspective on consciousness is the conspicuous absence of any progress in the neuroscientific project to identify a mechanism through which the material substance of the brain might generate consciousness.

Many proposing a non-materialist perspective on consciousness view consciousness as in some way a fundamental property of the cosmos, with matter either a derivative of consciousness, or as a parallel fundamental property. The question that I believe is generally side-stepped in such analyses is where any notion of a transcendent dimension—traditionally the complement to materiality—might enter the picture. Non-materialism is strong on what it is not, but weaker in terms of the worldview that can accommodate seemingly anomalous data.

This concern with worldviews is central to any perspective on consciousness, for a perspective on consciousness arises through the interplay between a worldview and the data that inform a given author’s arguments. These two are clearly interrelated, for the data that pass through the filters which we erect based on our worldview may bring shifts in that worldview, or undermine it more dramatically, giving rise to a paradigm shift. The current situation in the science of consciousness suggests a wealth of data, both normative (e.g., neuroscientific) and anomalous (e.g., parapsychological) but an inadequate worldview in which to accommodate those data. My argument in this chapter is that introducing the kabbalistic myth in this context can contribute to reformulating the worldview within which consciousness is understood.

Of course, the worldview of the Zohar is quintessentially that of theism, and the data derive from both the sacred scriptures—primarily the Torah—and the kabbalists’ experiences. To be clear, I am not suggesting that a theistic worldview is required to overcome the current impasse in understanding consciousness. A shift of worldview away from materialism may, however, be needed, and I suggest that unpacking the kabbalistic myth can yield insights as to the form the new worldview might take.

In order to advance towards this goal, a closer analysis of the sources of the kabbalistic myth is needed, for the epistemology appropriate for religious systems of thought cannot simply be lifted from its context and applied to science and psychology. Whilst scholars of the Jewish mystical tradition find sources in earlier strata of textual material (Scholem, 1991), it is more to sources in the psyche that psychologists are drawn, since mystical states can provide a window into the deep structures of the psyche. There is, however, no clear distinction between mystical experience and mystical theology, especially in the case of the Jewish mystics who authored the kabbalistic myth. The experiences of these mystics were grounded in their monotheistic beliefs and predicated on their distinctive ways of engaging with scripture. Kabbalistic exegesis codifies the experiences of the author and, at the same time, opens the doors to mystical experience for the reader (Lancaster, 2015; Wolfson, 1994). Throughout the Zohar, we glimpse hints of mystical experiences conveyed through the complex exegetical style whereby scriptural passages are interpreted and re-interpreted in relation to the system of the sefirot7 through which the infinite divine essence manifests.

Extricating the psychology embedded in the kabbalistic myth therefore requires us to engage with the profoundly hermeneutic thrust of the Zohar’s narrative. The psychology is largely buried within the tapestry of exegesis. Whilst the exoteric readings of scripture reinforced monotheism, the experiences of these mystics revolved around encounters with what the authors conceived as several divine faces and multiple divine potencies. The kabbalistic myth became a creative resolution of the tension between monotheism and the diversification experienced in the divine pleroma. Just as a single person might be known through different shades of personality or even different titles and names, so too the divine oneness is ever present throughout the pleroma. The kabbalist’s quest is that of penetrating to that oneness and promoting unity throughout the pleroma—as in bringing the divine faces “face-to-face”.

Despite its relative hiddenness within the style of the Zohar, mystical experience undoubtedly had a major role to play in the kabbalistic myth (Hellner-Eshed, 2009; Lancaster, 2018). It is to this experiential dimension that the challenge of unpacking the myth, as I expressed it above, directly applies. What experiences led these mystics to explore the dynamics and physiognomy of the divine faces? And, given that mystical experiences seem to probe features and states of consciousness that are normally obscured from our introspections, which of their insights may be incorporated into a contemporary perspective on consciousness?

The argument that for purposes of psychological investigation we can bracket some of the more theological connotations of mystical experience is reminiscent of the ways in which insights from other religions have been incorporated into research into consciousness. In relation to Buddhism, for example, Lutz et al. (2007, p. 502) state that,

[F]rom the vantage point of the researcher who stands outside the tradition, it is crucial to separate the highly detailed and verifiable aspects of traditional knowledge about meditation from the transcendental claims that form the metaphysical or theological context of that knowledge.

More generally, the contribution to the contemporary challenge to understand consciousness that the study of mysticism can potentially bring needs to be addressed. Mysticism includes a potent experiential component which invariably entails distinctive conscious states, and, given the drive within mystical traditions to analyse and cultivate such states, these traditions have been mined for their insights into consciousness. Such generalisations, however, have only limited value. The term “mysticism” represents an imposed attempt to find order within hugely diverse strands in the human encounter with a perceived otherness in the cosmos, as well as the manifold ways in which explanations for those encounters have been given. It is often the distinctions across diverse traditions, and even between different phases in a given tradition, that can prove most revealing for psychological purposes.

As Parsons (2019, p. 16) rightly observes, “mysticism “in general” is more often than not insipid, misleading, and prescriptively useless”. Accordingly, if we wish to advance beyond somewhat bland generalisations, it becomes necessary to identify the distinctive features of the complex phenomena bound into our one word “consciousness” in which specific traditions—or even specific formulations of a given tradition—were interested.

To illustrate this point let me contrast the textual record reflecting the interests of the Jewish mystics who developed the kabbalistic myth with a very different tradition that I have explored for its insights into consciousness, namely the Abhidhamma texts written by Buddhist monks in the Theravadin line (Lancaster, 1997; 2004). Whilst we might classify both groups as oriented towards wisdom, the relevance of their writings to a study of consciousness are poles apart. The Abhidhamma cultivated insight into the microprocesses of conscious events, and therefore Abhidhamma texts bring a fascinating complementary perspective to the primary interest of the cognitive neuroscientific approach to consciousness, which focuses on the microprocesses that differentiate between conscious and nonconscious events. The complementarity between these approaches is well illustrated by the theory advanced by the neuroscientist, Zeki (2007), that vision entails a sequence of “microconsciousnesses”, for it relates directly to the concept in the Abhidhamma that perception comprises “moments of consciousness”, each of such short duration that we do not normally notice them. The critical point for our purposes is that the Abhidhamma texts become a valuable resource for bringing a first-person perspective to the third-person data that cognitive neuroscience has gathered.

The Jewish mystics who devised and perpetuated the kabbalistic myth, by contrast, were not atomising consciousness into microprocesses. Their interest lay in larger scale patterns, and the relationship between these patterns across the levels in what they conceived, in line with their monotheistic beliefs, as the created hierarchy. Translated into language relevant to twentieth and twenty first-century discourse on consciousness, their interest in the dynamics operating between differing conformations (“faces”) might be seen as a pre-modern schematising of the interplay between complexes, or dissociated alter personalities. When we introduce a second core feature of the Zohar’s narrative, namely the interaction between concealed and revealed processes, it becomes clear that the features of consciousness that lay at the core of these kabbalists’ work concerned what we would term unconscious and conscious dynamics of the psyche. Indeed, several authors have noted the significance of these kabbalistic motifs, and their treatment in later kabbalistic formulations, for the development of psychoanalysis (Bakan, 1958; Dein, 2006) and for Jung’s analytical psychology (Drob, 2010). Jung acknowledged in a 1955 interview that the Hassidic master, the Maggid of Mezeritch, had “anticipated my entire psychology in the eighteenth century” (Jung 1977, as cited in Drob, 2010, p. 5). Drob (2010) details the impact that kabbalistic sources had on Jung, commenting that Jung “turns to the symbols of Jewish mysticism in constructing his theory of the human psyche and, in effect, extracts the psychological “gold” buried in the Jewish mystical tradition” (p. 22).

Where the Abhidhamma’s insights into subsidiary stages in conscious thought or perception can complement cognitive neuroscience’s drive to identify the processes in cognition, the kabbalistic myth offers a complementary perspective to the role depth psychology plays in identifying large-scale patterns in psychological dynamics, levels in consciousness, and the metaphysical origins of consciousness. If the Abhidhamma might be said to offer a first-person microscope that we can focus onto the minutiae of consciousness, I would suggest that the kabbalistic myth provides a telescope for grasping the larger scheme.

Kabbalah and levels of consciousness

I have argued that a fascination with the dynamic between concealing and revealing lies at the core of the rich seam of psychological insight that courses through the Kabbalah (Lancaster, 2004; 2018). This fascination is neither unique to the Jewish tradition nor is it confined to the mystical literature in Judaism. We find it, for example, in the writings of the Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, of whom Katz (2000, p. 44) writes, “For Eckhart, the Bible is a book of secrets, and the key to understanding it is an awareness that it reveals ultimate truths while concealing them and conceals them while revealing them”. The centrality of the dynamic is similarly conveyed in Sufi writings about the veil, with Ibn Arabi, for example, capturing the core paradox when he writes that, “The Real becomes manifest by being veiled, so He [God] is the Manifest/the Veiled” (cited in Chittick, 1999, pp. 81-82).

In Judaism, the central premise that the Torah conveys concealed meanings when approached using complex hermeneutic rules is a pillar of the rabbinic method that prefigures the rise of Kabbalah. Indeed, there are good reasons for thinking that Freud’s edifice is predicated on the backdrop of rabbinic hermeneutics (Faur, 1986; Handelman, 1982; Lancaster, 2004; Yerushalmi, 1991). Freud’s method using free association became a secularised system that transposed the rabbinic hermeneutical principles from their home in the sacred scripture to a new goal, that of penetrating the human mind. Just as the sacred text was understood as comprising differing levels of meaning, each with its own rules of logic, so too was the mind viewed as housing two forms of thinking, each with its own logic, and giving rise to differentiation between conscious and unconscious levels of the psyche.
Whilst the concealing-revealing dynamic is by no means unique to the Kabbalah, it is pre-eminently in the Jewish mystical tradition that the dynamic takes on epic proportions. This elevation of concealment to the scale of a divinely orchestrated masterplan may stem from the prior experience of Jews as being a minority group, especially under Christian rule when the pressures of anti-Semitism led to concealing of that which was most precious in their world. For the Kabbalists, the focus of the concealing dynamic was the Shekhinah, the feminine divine presence in the world. In the kabbalistic myth, the Shekhinah is in exile from her male consort, paralleling the experience of Jews as being in exile from their Land and therefore from the focus of their divine service. The human role is to uncover the Shekhinah from her concealment, symbolically to adorn her as a bride for her consort. The mystical narrative elevates the Jew, cast as blind and polluting by the dominant culture, unable to see ‘truth’ in the renewal of God’s covenant, into the ultimate hero, the figure destined to re-unify the godhead and bring the ineffable divine influx to the world (Lancaster, 2008). Lachter (2018) refers to such kabbalistic constructions as “inversions of history” for “the misfortunes of Jewish experience are reimagined as secret Jewish triumphs” (p. 134).

The dynamic of interest, then, is no longer a feature of the Torah alone but defines the world: “All the ways of Torah are like this: revealed and secret. And all matters of the world, whether of this world or the world above, are entirely concealed and revealed” (Zohar 2:230b, as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 6, p. 324). And, to reinforce that “all matters” in this context includes consciousness, let me cite one example of another recurring theme in the Zohar, namely the concealment of thought, the very life of the psyche:

If what is suspended in supernal thought cannot be grasped by anyone, all the more so thought itself! […] From within concealing of the concealed, from the initial descent of the infinite [divine essence], radiates a tenuous radiance, unknown, concealed in tracing like the point of a needle, mystery of the concealment of thought. Unknown until a radiance extends from it to a realm containing tracings of all letters, issuing from there.

– Zohar 1:21a, cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 1, p. 161

Spanning centuries brings its own problems in interpreting symbols. Nevertheless, I think there are good grounds for equating “radiance,” as used here by the authors of the Zohar, with our modern sense of the essence of consciousness. The above extract then comes to signify both that thought is predicated on phenomenality, the essence of consciousness, and that thoughts are unknowable until they take on verbal form. Moreover, drawing on an additional principle in the worldview of the Zohar, namely the isomorphism between “above” and “below”, between God and human, allows us to transpose these notions of the concealment of thought in the Godhead to the human sphere. As Wolfson (1994, p. 39) aptly puts it, “In seeing God, one sees oneself, for in seeing oneself, one sees God.” Again, this role of elevation is critical; the human experience becomes the pattern from which insights into the mind of God can be extracted. It becomes impossible to tease apart cause and effect: Does the theological insight, extracted from God’s word by complex hermeneutic operations, lead to an understanding of the human state, or does the experiential insight into the human state format teachings about the nature of God; Are humans in God’s image or does man, the measure of all things, form God in his own image?

This conundrum is a further ramification of the intricate embeddedness of experience in the Zohar’s hermeneutic narrative noted earlier. The textual record does not allow us to separate the experience from the theology: “From the point of view of the Zohar, visionary experience is a vehicle for hermeneutics as hermeneutics is a vehicle for visionary experience” (Wolfson, 1994 p. 333; see also Lancaster, 2015). For my purposes in this chapter, the two core kabbalistic principles—that experiential insights are embedded in the Zohar’s hermeneutic narrative and that the divine and human are in isomorphic accord— leads to the premise that teachings about the dynamics between, and features of, the faces of God should be viewed as applying equally to the human condition. To put the point another way, in attempting to distil insights into consciousness from the Zoharic tradition, our focus becomes one of decoding the authors’ presentation of the inner workings of the Godhead since the insights presented are ipse facto insights into the human condition and consciousness more generally.

Before exploring the kabbalistc myth in more detail with a view to explicating its input to our understanding of consciousness, some comments about levels of consciousness are in order. The kabbalistic myth emphasises constellations in a hierarchical scheme, and the centrality given to alignment—that faces should gaze at one another—suggests an interpretation in terms of conscious and unconscious levels of mind: When “gazing” is compromised, the constellations are unconscious of one another.
However, several lines of psychological data, especially those relating to dissociative conditions, suggest that the topological divide proposed between conscious and unconscious realms of mind may be misleading (Lancaster, 2004). Conditions such as dissociative identity disorder, some amnesias and blindsight do not sit easily within a classical psychodynamic model of the conscious-unconscious divide. A more parsimonious approach requires us to identify three components that in their interactions give rise to the complexities of consciousness. Two of these components, or dimensions, of consciousness (Lancaster, 2004) were mentioned earlier. Phenomenality, the “essence” of consciousness as I termed it above, refers to the ‘raw feels’ in experience—the redness of red, the scent of the rose. But there is increasing evidence to support the claim that consciousness can be totally devoid of structured content, that individuals have so-called pure conscious experiences, in which even such raw feels are absent whilst phenomenality is maintained (Forman, 1990; Taylor, 2017). Phenomenality, then, might be characterised as a property which is transcendent to processes that generate the content and qualities of experience, such as brain processes involved in perception. These processes give rise to the second dimension of consciousness, intentionality.

To these we must add a third dimension, accessibility (Block, 1995, 2005). There can be no experience without an experiencer who has access to the contents of consciousness, or, in the case of the pure consciousness experience, to the nothingness where content would otherwise be. There are various conditions characterised by dissociation (e.g., amnesia, neglect syndrome, the split brain state, etc.), in which research has suggested that the dimension of accessibility is compromised, even though the other two dimensions—phenomenality and intentionality—are intact. The condition termed “blindsight” (Weiskrantz, 1986) exemplifies such a case. Blindsight patients are unable to report on aspects of their visual fields relating to damaged regions of the visual cortex. They can, however, guess about such aspects, achieving high degrees of accuracy. Evidently, intact sub-cortical systems carry out sufficient visual processing to support these “guesses”, even though the patient is unaware of it. But what does such “unawareness” mean in operational terms? A logical explanation for blindsight holds that preserved visual processing may be fully conscious as far as phenomenality and intentionality are concerned; the abnormal condition arises because the experiencer has no access to that conscious processing (Kastrup, 2017; Lancaster, 2004; Nelkin, 1996).

This formulation—of the experiencer having, or not having, access to mental content—is an over- simplification, however. There is compelling evidence, both from contemplative traditions, Buddhism in particular, and from research in cognitive neuroscience, that what we normally conceive as the experiencing self—the ego, or more simply, the sense of “I”—is a construct, having no independent, continuous existence. The question of whether or not we become conscious of some event is as much about whether or not the “I” in that moment is constructed in relation to the event as it is about accessibility. As formulated by Kihlstrom (1993, p.152), “When a link is made between the mental representation of self and the mental representation of some object or event, then the percept, memory or thought enters into consciousness; when this link fails to be made, it does not.” To use the terminology I developed to explicate these aspects of consciousness, the question becomes whether or not the event has been registered in association with an “I-tag” and the extent to which a future representation of “I” resembles that “I-tag” (Lancaster, 1991; 1997). Contrary to our simple introspections, “I” is effectively a hypothesis constructed to bring superficial coherence to mental impressions; it is the putative perceiver of sensations and initiator of actions. The evidence suggests that it is neither of these, just as a character in a computer game gives only the appearance of being in control. There must be a cognitive representation of self (“I”) which is constructed and enters memory in association with events experienced at that time, hence it becomes a tag attaching to the memory traces of those events. The normal sense that “I” remember, and that the memories belong to me, comes about to the extent that there is continuity between the ”I-tag” and the “I” constructed at the time of remembering. It is interesting to note that this model very much acknowledges the etymology of the word “remember”: “I” and the remembered events are literally re-membered together.

The foregoing only briefly summarises a complex subject (see Lancaster, 2004, for more detail). The complexities of topics including amnesia, blindsight, and dissociative identity disorder need not concern us here. My objective in introducing these ideas is to demonstrate the need to recognise three different dimensions to consciousness. The illusion of access comes about when the ongoing cognitive narrative constructs an “I” that has sufficient contiguity with the “I-tag” associated with the mental event seemingly being accessed. In the case of memory, for example, the narrative establishes the illusion that the “I” accessed, and is the owner of, the memory for the event. Analogous processes give the illusion that the “I” initiated an action, or perceived the visual scene, etc. To succinctly summarise the roles of the three dimensions of consciousness, in the normal state of consciousness the “I” narrative, by means of which the illusion of access is constructed, supervenes over a body of intentional content infused with phenomenality.

This analysis of the dimensions of consciousness has two major implications for my discussion of the kabbalistic myth and consciousness. Firstly, it suggests that we should conceptualise the concealing-revealing dynamic not in terms of conscious and unconscious regions of the psyche but in terms of the conformations of self (“I”) that may or may not align with representations of content in perceptions, thoughts, and memories. Seemingly different levels of consciousness—along the lines of the distinctions we make using terms such as pre-conscious, sub-conscious, or un-conscious—would be recast as changes in the constellation of the experiencing self; there is no change in accessibility, only in the construction of the self seemingly having or not having access to particular contents in consciousness. The kabbalist who experiences some previously concealed aspect, be it in the Torah, the world or in thought, is expanding the scale of their self. In revealing the concealed, the kabbalist identifies with the Shekhinah, becoming God-like in the act of uncovering. Indeed, the authors of the Zohar were fascinated by the dynamic between God and human in the concealing-revealing dynamic:

All concealed things that the blessed holy One does He has placed within the holy Torah; all is found there. That concealed matter is revealed by Torah, and immediately clothed in another garment, hidden there and not revealed. The wise who are full of eyes—although that matter is concealed there in its garment—see it through the garment. And when that matter is revealed, before entering its garment, they cast an open eye upon it, although immediately concealed, it is not lost to their sight.

– Zohar 2:98b; as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 5, p. 31

The matter that had been revealed is reconcealed because kabbalists (“the wise who are full of eyes”) withdraw from union with the Shekhinah (the “garment”), presumably re-identifying with the mundane construction of “I”; yet the concealed remains available (“is not lost to their sight”), reappearing when the mystic re-enters their immersion with the Shekhinah. Aspiring to union with the Shekhinah is very much a goal for the Zohar authors. Permanent union is the preserve of revered biblical figures: “When Jacob died, She [Shekhinah] joined Moses, and as long as Moses existed in the world, he enjoyed Her fittingly; he was her second husband” (Zohar 1:21b; as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 1, pp. 166-167). But temporary union is viewed as the state enjoyed by worthy kabbalists, especially when they rise in the night to engage in the revealing-concealing quest.
The second implication arising from this discussion of the dimensions of consciousness is that what we misleadingly term the “unconscious” is not unconscious insofar as two of the three dimensions are concerned (Jeffrey, 1986; Kastrup, 2017; Lancaster, 2004). Moreover, the one dimension of consciousness that does differentiate between the conventional understanding of “conscious” and “unconscious”, namely accessibility, is illusory, resolving more into a matter of scale in the construction of the experiencing self.
As Kastrup (2017) has argued on the basis of an analogous formulation (that “the unconscious is conscious”), the view that all mental processes are conscious enables us to postulate that consciousness is fundamental, that it is not a product of the mechanisms that generate specific classes of experience. Whilst we can identify brain mechanisms which give rise to these specific classes of experience, in Kastrup’s view consciousness itself is not limited to the mechanisms. As he notes, “This allows us to circumvent the “hard problem of consciousness” altogether, by inferring that consciousness is primary” (Kastrup (2017, p. 569). In the terms I have developed here and in earlier works (Lancaster, 2004, 2015), it would be the dimension of phenomenality that is a fundamental property of the universe.

The faces of god and the constellations of self

The core ideas seeded in the Book of Concealment are expanded and explicated in two further tracts in the corpus of the Zohar, the Great Holy Assembly and the Small Holy Assembly. Both works contain elaborate discourses on the brains and physiognomic features of the divine faces. It is hardly surprising that the Great Holy Assembly opens with warnings about idolatry, drawing on exegesis of the biblical warning, “Cursed be the man who makes a carved or molten image” (Deuteronomy 27:15). Clearly, in exploring fine details of the divine faces the authors assumed that readers would understand the symbolic intent. The imagery explored in relation to the “anatomy of God” (Rosenberg, 1973) builds on the isomorphism between God and man,8 using the anatomical features to distil critical points in the emanative process and the dynamic interactions between the players in this cosmic drama—the cosmic Adam, the “upper face”, the “lower face”, the Shekhinah, and humankind.

Skull, brain, hair, forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, and beard are all examined for their symbolic roles in the drama. Throughout, the superordinate idea of correspondence above and below is evident. As Scholem (1991, p. 45) expressed it, “The lower, earthly human being and the upper, mystical human being, in which the Godhead is manifested as shape, belong together and are unthinkable without one another in a well-ordered world.” The correspondence may be briefly illustrated by reference to the description of the brain of the lower face, which is said to extend into 32 paths. Clearly, the parallel is to the human brain which gives rise to the spinal cord and 31 pairs of spinal nerves. At one and the same time the pattern is that of the ten sefirot arrayed in a system with 22 interconnections (in turn corresponding to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet) and the human nervous system comprising the “paths” throughout the human body.

The idea on which I shall focus comes in the context of the Great Holy Assembly’s discussion of the nose of the lower face, which is construed as bringing harsh conditions (“judgement”) into the world. The nose is “small” and the breath becomes turbulent. This can be assuaged by the nose of the higher face that brings compassion—a specific manifestation of the more general notion that alignment between the divine faces depicts the ideal. The Zoharic text continues,

This corresponds to the mystery that we have learned: YHVH! YHVH!9 (Exodus 34:6)—a pausal sign interposing between them.10 As we have learned: Moses! Moses! (Exodus 3:4)—wherever a name is mentioned twice, a pausal sign interposes between them: Abraham! Abraham! (Genesis 22:11); Jacob! Jacob! (Genesis 46:2); Samuel! Samuel! (1 Samuel 3:10). In all cases, a sign interposes between them—except for Moses! Moses! where no such sign interposes. Why? Abraham! Abraham!—the latter perfect, the former lacking perfection; for now he had become perfect through ten tests. Therefore, a pausal sign interposes between them, for now he was not as before.
Jacob! Jacob!—the latter perfect, the former lacking perfection; for … now he had become complete on earth—a holy tree corresponding to the pattern above, with twelve boundaries, with seventy branches—which he was not before. So the latter was perfect, the former lacked perfection, and a pausal sign interposes between them….
But Moses! Moses!—no sign interposing between them, for since the day that he was born, he was perfect, as is written: She saw that he was good (Exodus 2:2).
Here, too, YHVH! YHVH!—a sign interposing between them, the latter perfect in every way.

-Zohar 3:138a; as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 8, pp. 400-402

Whilst this text is primarily directed polemically to extolling the supremacy of Moses as the perfect prophet and teacher—there being no stage in his life when he was not perfect—two additional points are of particular interest. The first exemplifies the boldness of the kabbalistic myth in asserting that there is, as it were, a before and after to God achieving perfection in every way. YHVH, the name that is applied to the lower divine face, becomes perfect “in every way” only when united with the Shekhinah, the precondition for YHVH to be aligned with the upper face. Kabbalists trod on difficult ground here for any denial of God’s perfection would challenge a fundamental tenet of Judaism. It was by distinguishing between the infinite essence of God, which is “beyond all cognitive statements, and can only be described through negation” (Scholem, 1991 p. 38), and the multiple emanations of God as encountered in scripture and in experience of the divine, that the kabbalists reconciled the problem: The infinite essence is perfect; the emanations form a structure that remains incomplete until it becomes unified following the required impulse from below—the human input. This is the distinctive kabbalistic understanding of the principle that humans are partners to God in creation.

The second point of interest concerns the means by which seminal biblical figures were viewed as having achieved their states of perfection. The implied parallel between YHVH and mortals suggests that the way in which humans attain a state of perfection is akin to the dynamic pattern in the ‘higher’ faces. Given that the dynamic pattern ‘above’ requires an input from ‘below’ which eventuates in the two higher faces achieving alignment, then we must assume that human perfection is achieved analogously when a lower and a higher constellation of being align. The alignment might be more appropriately viewed here as transparency, for the gazing face-to-face effectively means that the lower divine face becomes a transparent vehicle for transmitting the qualities of the upper face, notably the quality of compassion.

The parallel would seem to connote lower and higher constellations of self. The construction of “I”—the lower constellation—serves to orient our being to the world, just as the lower divine face serves as a conduit into the human world for the will and compassion of the upper face. When the lower constellation (“I”) is misaligned with the higher—identified, for example, as “self” by Jung (1921/1971), or “higher self” (amongst other terms) by Assagioli (1993)—then the lower appears to assert autonomy but lacks integrity. Alignment of the two constellations is the goal sought by spiritual traditions as an “enlightenment” through which the individual radiates compassion, analogous again to the alignment of the divine faces. In enlightenment, the ego becomes transparent.

I would suggest that two drivers underpin the Zohar’s imagery of the faces. One of these is the theological principle of isomorphism between God and human; if we have a brain, eyes, ears, a nose and a mouth, then in some way so too must God. The second driver concerns the experience of bodily symbolism. All features of the body code meanings that are profoundly psychological, if not archetypal. In a simple way, we do experience changes in the breath flow in our nostrils when anger takes hold; the forehead does have a gentle sensitivity that mirrors compassion, and so on. These examples are simplistic digests of core features in the Zohar’s treatment of the faces. The critical point is that the psychological experience of facial symbolism became the means for kabbalists to understand in non-idolatrous ways the isomorphic notion that God has human features.
The teaching of the divine faces is thus a specific exemplar of the principle discussed earlier (and in more detail in Lancaster, 2015), that hermeneutics becomes entwined with experiential analysis. My point is that, just as insights into the psychological meanings of noses, eyes and ears etc. informed the Zohar authors’ exegetical imaginations in their analysis of these features in the divine faces, so too did their understanding of the nature of selfhood find expression in the whole notion of what a face means. When we see a face, we intuit the self that lies behind the mask of facial features. And I think we must further conclude that the authors’ experience, conditioned as it must have been by practices directed towards mystical states of consciousness (Hellner-Eshed, 2005), included a strong sense that there are lower and higher conformations of self. Indeed, the anthropomorphic connotations of the divine faces were further emphasised in the notion that the primordial human (Adam) was the cosmic blueprint for the divine structures. And in a number of places the Zohar identifies the primordial human either with both the divine faces or with the lower face specifically (Liebes, 1993).

Having established some degree of legitimacy in this move to reconfigure teachings about the divine faces as insights into the nature of self, I will now examine potential implications for the dimensions of consciousness as identified in the previous section. Phenomenality, the essential core to all consciousness, must be understood as fundamentally permeating all expressions of being, whether divine or human, lower or higher.

As argued in the previous section, the dimension of accessibility effectively connotes the degree of continuity in the entity deemed to be in control of accessing conscious content. Although “I” is intuitively viewed as a continuous presence that controls access, more precise data from contemplative traditions and psychological research suggest it is more a consequence of memory readout. Similarly, in relation to voluntary movement, although “I” thinks it controlled a sequence of limb actions, the evidence suggests its construction lags behind the movements (Lancaster, 2004). Critically, as a constructed representation of self, “I” varies over time; it is characterised by multiplicity (Lancaster, 1991). Noting the compelling evidence for construing the self as comprising functionally dissociable elements, Klein (2012) puts it unequivocally: “We will ultimately not make sufficient progress coming to terms with our object of inquiry—the self—until we acknowledge … that the self is a multiplicity” (pp. 286-287). As argued in the previous section, this changeability in the structure of “I” determines what an individual can and cannot become conscious of.

In the case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), for example, one alter may be unable to access memories to which another alter has ready access. Whilst DID clearly represents an extreme case of multiplicity in the construction of “I”, there are grounds for viewing the experience of diverse identities on a continuum from the pathological, as in DID, to healthy individuals (Facco et al., 2019). The construction of “I” as a seemingly coherent personality masks the presence of a diversity of more hidden identities, or sub-personalities (Rowan, 1990).

Given the theological background to the Zohar’s imagery, the lower divine face might be construed as a creation not a construction. Nevertheless, the parallel to the construction of “I” is evident in the way it is characterised in terms of duality and multiplicity. The higher face, by comparison, is characterised by undifferentiated oneness. The point could be exemplified by reference to descriptions of various features in the faces. Here I consider only one feature: the eyes. The eyes of the upper face are unified, they are “two eyes, turning into one. This eye is white within white, and a white including all whites” (Zohar 3:129b, as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 8, p. 338). The eye has no lid for it never sleeps, it watches continually. In contrast, the lower face has two eyes, each with brows, lids and lashes, and displaying a range of colours which expand further into “seven eyes of supervision” (Zohar 3:137a, as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 8, p. 393); moreover, adhering to each eye are “seven hundred thousand masters of watchfulness”11 (Zohar 3:136b, as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol.8, p. 392).

Despite the apparent separation between the unified upper constellation and the disparate lower one, the Zohar is at pains to stress their ontological continuity:

The principle of all: The Ancient of Ancients [another term for the upper face] and Ze’ir Anpin [Aramaic, “short face”, i.e. the lower face] are all one—He was all, is all, will be all; He did not change, will not change, does not change. … Therefore the image of Adam is the image of those above and those below …. What is the difference between one and the other? Well, all is evenly balanced—but by us paths are separated … and from our perspective they differ from one another.

– Zohar 3:141b; as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 8, p. 426

Applying this to the psychology of self would suggest that although the lower constellation, “I”, appears separate from the higher organisation of self, from the higher perspective there is no distinction. Assagioli makes this point clearly in his description of the relationship between “I” and the higher constellation of self, which he refers to using terms such as Self, higher self, true self, or transpersonal self. For Assagioli, “I” is a reflection, or projection, of the higher self, and generally ignorant of its source. Yet the two are not ontologically separate:

There are not really two selves, two independent and separate entities. The Self is one; it manifests in different degrees of awareness and self-realization. The reflection appears to be self-existent but has, in reality, no autonomous substantiality. It is, in other words, not a new and different light but a projection of its luminous source.

– Assagioli, 1993, as cited in Daniels, 2005, p.187 12

Another author to make the same point – using yet another term, the observing self – is Deikman (1982), who argues that “I” is simply a manifestation of the observing self: “[E]veryday consciousness contains a transcendent element that we seldom notice because that element is the very ground of our experience” (p. 95). Any illusion of separateness is due to our limited perspective. “By us paths are separated”, states the Zohar in the above extract, which implies that the dimension of intentionality breaks up what is essentially an undivided whole into the separate contents of consciousness, giving the illusion of a separate identity.

There is a critical distinction between the sense of observation itself and the constellation of ideas that adhere to what we intuitively think is doing the observing. As James (1890) famously pointed out, there is a difference between self as subject and self as object. In reflecting on our sense of selfhood we typically cloud that pure sense of observation with the accretions that accompany what it is to be an identity. The complex of accretions constitutes a personality that functions in relation to the social world that we construct.

For the Zohar authors, in parallel fashion the lower face is identified with the God of scripture. As such, it too has a personality, displaying emotion in its encounters with the human world. Its dominant emotions arise through a judgemental disposition:

The nose of the lower face—enhancement of the countenance; the whole face is thereby recognized. This nose is unlike the nose of the holy Ancient One [upper face], concealed of all concealed; for the nose of the Ancient One is life of life for all … breath of life for all …. In this smoke [from the nostrils of the lower face] intermingle all colours; to every single colour adhere masters of harsh judgement, mingling in that smoke.

– Zohar 3:294a; as cited in Matt, 2004-2017, vol. 9, p. 823

The Kabbalah understands the essential principle of judgement as that of limitation. The root of all acts of judgement is a desire to limit possibilities for oneself or others. This is very much the hallmark of “I” as identity. The tagging model introduced earlier predicts the self-limiting role of identity: “I” can be conscious only of those thoughts, memories, or perceptions that align with the habitual self-model (i.e., are associated with an “I”-tag that matches the current self-model). The basis of all prejudice – a clear manifestation of “harsh judgement” – is found in this vicious cycle by means of which “I” as identity limits its access to new and expansive ideas.

Mitigation of judgement in the kabbalistic scheme comes through alignment of the divine faces. The judgemental bias of the lower face is an imbalance attributable to its apparent autonomy from its source, the upper face, understood, in turn, to be a consequence of the exilic distance between the lower face and its consort, the Shekhinah. And, as we have seen, overcoming the exile of the Shekhinah is a task for which humans are ultimately responsible. Hellner-Eshed (2009, p. 344) captures the point in her statement that the imbalance in the lower face is due to “a lack of the appropriate connection between dualistic consciousness and its unified and undifferentiated source.” When this lack is resolved, the lower face turns transparent, and the compassion that characterises the upper face transmits to the human world. Alignment and balance are the harbingers of compassion and love.

In the kabbalistic myth, balancing of male and female at the human level, the conjunction of complementary principles, initiates the cosmic alignment. The Shekhinah is arrayed, prepared as bride for the lower face, and their union recapitulates the higher union between male and female principles eternally united in the upper face. The river flows into the garden, and all rests in balance.

The ontology of consciousness

Earlier I commented that the term “myth” was appropriate for the schematic drama involving the divine faces in the Zohar, for it presents a profound representation of the human place in the scheme of things. In addition to this mythic quality, the scheme becomes an operational pattern recapitulated across the levels in a hierarchy of being. Both its mythic quality and its depiction of a ground plan have implications not only for our understanding of mysticism but also for the way ontological principles may be incorporated in theories of consciousness.

At the level of cognitive and neurodynamic systems, the pattern is observable in the reflexive arc introduced earlier. The initiating “impulse from below” is the sensory activity bringing input from the physical domain and feeding forward to regions of the brain. “Alignment” comes about as a matching between the array of features in the incoming activity and stored patterns representing previous encounters with similar arrays of features. The analogy with machine-based pattern recognition can illustrate this process: The computer extracts features from the input array and compares the array with patterns programmed in memory, or learnt through prior encounters, to determine a match or mismatch. Returning to the neurocognitive process, recurrent modulation of the feedforward system seems likely to be the means for effecting the matching process. The fine detail of this process appears to involve alignment of the oscillating frequencies of activated neural systems, bringing about binding of constituent elements in perception and other cognitive processes (Fries et al., 2001; Singer, 2019). In a model advanced by Fuster and Bressler (2012), objects or events are coded by widespread neural systems that bind together. The authors refer to these systems as “cognits”, which are effectively memory or knowledge units. The cognits guide perception and other cognitive processes through a “top-down” process that entails phase synchrony in neural activity within the cognits and incoming sensory signals. The authors give the example of a cognit for a key that binds all the properties that the key may connote; merely touching the key in my pocket activates the entire cognit.

Neurocognitive research is supported by computer modelling which can confirm the efficacy of these systems that signal the integration of top-down and bottom-up activity. How exactly such mechanical systems might bring about consciousness remains unclear, however. The parallel I am proposing with the kabbalistic myth suggests an additional level in the operation. The final match, or alignment—the touch of the key activating the cognit for the key—introduces a quality that is transcendent to the systems effecting the match, namely meaning. An oscillating neural system, or indeed a network based on silicon, cannot experience meaning; there can be associations and rules through which given states of the system can activate other states, but no experience of meaning. In recognising that the entity I touched in my pocket is my front-door key there is an immediacy of meaning in consciousness. There is a coming together of the three dimensions of consciousness: phenomenality, intentionality, and self-reference (or the illusion of access). The “higher influx” that alignment of faces triggers in the kabbalistic myth becomes, in this microcosm of the larger-scale pattern, the influx of meaning: phenomenality enmeshes with the other dimensions, and the person becomes conscious of the meaningful objects in the perceptual scene (Lancaster, 2004, 2011a).

I have applied two terms to the dynamic conveyed in the Zohar’s narrative of divine faces: myth and pattern. The neurocognitive reflex arc illustrates the potency of the operational pattern in the narrative. The term myth, however, becomes apposite only when we relate the narrative to the psychodynamic level of explanation. Whilst a myth can capture a recurring pattern in the unfolding of events, it is mythic only to the extent that the pattern activates complexes in the psyche.

Drob (2010) has expounded the kabbalistic myth as it is presented by the sixteenth-century teacher, Isaac Luria, in relation to Jung’s model of the psyche and the individuation process. Jung’s understanding of the gendering of the psyche accommodates the sexual features of the kabbalistic myth. The “sacred marriage” and the “conjunction of opposites” are phrases that encapsulate the dynamic driving individuation in Jung’s thought. As we have seen, the human role in the kabbalistic myth, generally conveyed as that of arraying the Shekhinah as bride for the lower face, extends further to that of a more direct sexual relationship as the male kabbalist aspires to the position of Moses as husband to the Shekhinah. The eroticism in the myth may be viewed psychologically as deriving from the role played by the feminine element in the male psyche. In Jung’s formulation, progress on the path of individuation can be achieved only to the extent that an individual recognises, and consciously integrates, the complex that connotes their non-biological gender. In the case of a man Jung termed this complex the anima, and the myth’s notion of the “impulse from below” would correspond in these psychodynamic terms to the man beginning to creatively engage with the anima. The anima becomes a muse or guide opening paths into the unconscious, through which the man intuits the wider connotation of his being in the self. In the individuation process, the ego gains a sense of its relationship to the self. For Jung, the goal of individuation is the realisation that “the ego is neither opposed nor subjected [to the self], but merely attached …. The individuated ego senses itself as the object of an unknown and supraordinate subject” (Jung, 1928/1966, p. 240). This formulation of the goal of individuation—the journey to self- realisation—may again be viewed in terms of the “alignment” presented as the goal in the kabbalistic myth, with the upper face equating to an “unknown and supraordinate subject” to which the lower face is “object”.

The kabbalistic myth is inevitably a product of its age and of the patriarchal religion of which it is part. My above analysis in terms of the individuation process for a man very much reflects the orientation of the myth; the Shekhinah marks the human point of entry into the cosmic drama, and her femininity means that it is men who are cast in the human role in advancing the drama towards its balanced goal.

Nevertheless, casting the feminine as a merely passive participant in the mythic drama may be unwarranted. Hellner-Eshed (2009) captures a more nuanced role for the feminine in the myth, commenting that she discerns in the Zohar a view of the feminine as a more active player in the drama, seeking to “cover and envelop the divine light within her” (p. 170).

Myths that are not ossified by their embeddedness in some bygone era will inevitably evolve with changes in the prevailing worldview, and I believe that the shifts towards feminine, and earth-related, values over recent decades are significantly impacting the kabbalistic myth. The view of the Shekhinah as awaiting the attention of those who can prepare her for the sacred marriage has changed. A more contemporary view would see her as an initiator, able to actively orchestrate events and assert paths of action. As the divine presence associated with the world, the Shekhinah is the one opening our eyes to the damage we are inflicting on the “garden”, she is gathering strength through environmental movements and re-awakening a more earth-based spirituality.

My concern here, however, is not with the evolving myths that shape the collective psyche and evolve cultures—interesting though that is, notably at the time of writing in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic (Lancaster, 2020a, 2020b). The precise form in which the kabbalistic myth becomes articulated in each age does not fundamentally alter its implications for theories of consciousness. Throughout the chapter I have indicated these implications. I shall summarise them before finally exploring a non-materialist basis to consciousness that I think the myth suggests.

In summary, then, the key points are

  1. Phenomenality is of mysterious origin; the kabbalistic myth’s panentheistic frame holds that the inner quality that permeates all being flows from an unknowable source.
  2. The source (which, depending on belief systems, could be identified with “God” or with some notion of the instigation of the Big Bang giving rise to the universe) desires to know the expression of its intrinsic creativity—enabling it to know itself. This can be achieved only by means of structures of being that can bring knowable content into relationship with phenomenality. Consequently, there is a need to establish a means for intentionality in consciousness.
  3. The “faces of God” symbolically express the means adopted. The anthropomorphism in the symbolism is necessary since humans epitomise the desired kind of knowing.
  4. The alignment of the two divine faces is the condition for the desired knowing. There can be no balance, no “gazing face-to-face” without a human input. Humans initiate the male-female balance which alone can seed the higher balance.
  5. With the alignment of all the structures of being (human as well as divine), the human knowing of the world is transmitted to the source, fulfilling the source’s desire to know itself through the expressions of its creativity.
  6. Knowledge of the world requires the capacity for intentionality—recognition of meaning in sensory data through the reflexive arc in brain systems—and a knower—a structured organisation of being that develops the conviction that it is the subject of the knowing, that it is the agent accessing that which is available to be known.
  7. At the human level, alignment refers to recognition by the lower organisation of being (“I”) of its source in the higher (self, transpersonal self, etc.). The erotic imagery within the kabbalistic myth is directed to this relationship; in “knowing” the contrasexual part the individual opens to the wider sphere (“unconscious” in Jung’s scheme, for example), intimating realms beyond ego.

The above can be expressed by reframing Jung’s (1963/1967) “myth for today”, itself bearing strongly kabbalistic influence. Jung held that “man is indispensable for the completion of creation; that, in fact, he himself is the second creator of the world…. Human consciousness created objective existence and meaning, and man found his indispensable place in the great process of being” (pp. 284-285). Jung believed that, without human input, the God of the Hebrew Bible remains unconscious; we bring consciousness to the creator. My reframing of Jung’s myth suggests that phenomenality may be the gift bestowed by the creator, but without conscious content, which arises through accessibility and intentionality, the creator cannot know Himself—faces cannot gaze into one another. 

The reflexive arc in brain systems is the outermost manifestation of the kabbalistic myth. It operates according to the ground plan portrayed in the myth and epitomises the core principle that all is built on correspondences “above” and “below”; it is a microcosm of a macrocosmic process. Given that the brain’s reflexive arc is an element of a recurring pattern recapitulated throughout all levels of being, it may be reframed as a fractal.

The idea that patterns and principles repeat at different scales has become better understood through the concept of fractals, a topic that has proved fruitful in the study of consciousness and transpersonal psychology (Marks-Tarlow et al., 2020). The non-deterministic and non-linear basis of fractal structure has been viewed as applying to consciousness, and mystical and other transcendent experiences have been analysed as arising on account of the non-determinism in the boundaries of conscious states (Wilcox and Combs, 2020). Amongst the precedents for a fractal-based grasp of mysticism I would include the conclusions William James (1902/1982) drew from his magisterial survey of religious experience. The nucleus to his study, as he put it, was that these experiences arise when we identify with a higher part of ourselves and recognise that it is “conterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside [ourselves]” (p. 508). A fractal structure is precisely this—a “MORE of the same quality” operating on differing scales.

In the brain’s reflexive arc, as discussed in the previous section, the matching between bottom-up input patterns and top-down memory readout appears to depend on phase synchrony being established in the frequencies of neural activity (Lancaster, 2004). As Hunt and Schooler (2019) note, neural phase synchrony is an expression of a more general principle, that of resonance. Resonance brings about alignment in physical, biological, and psychological systems, and a theory of consciousness based on resonance is proposed as a solution to an aspect of the “hard problem of consciousness” (Chalmers, 1996), namely the “combination problem”. Hunt and Schooler base their proposals on panpsychism, the view that consciousness is a property attaching to all things in the universe, albeit to only a rudimentary level in the case of small and/or inorganic entities. The combination problem arises in establishing how individual small and rudimentary expressions of consciousness combine to generate larger organisations of consciousness. Their solution proposes that when small entities are resonating at the same frequency, they combine to generate larger conscious states. These states may then be viewed as forming a nested hierarchy: “We as humans are only able to directly access dominant consciousness, which is the top of the chain in the nested hierarchy that constitutes normal human consciousness” (p. 14). Their scheme posits many levels below that of normal human consciousness, including ones down to the quantum level. But what if the chain extends upwards, beyond “normal human consciousness”?

Kastrup (2018) adopts a “cosmopsychist” position which takes as its premise that the universe as a whole is conscious, and that smaller entities may be conscious only by dint of their role as participants in this cosmic consciousness, not intrinsically. He rejects the idea that human consciousness, for example, may be understood as the combining of multiple instances of elementary consciousness, because we have no plausible basis to bridge the explanatory gap, to explain how physical entities can instantiate experience. He further argues that it is unclear how combining instances of micro-consciousness could generate an experiencer. Rather, for Kastrup, cosmic consciousness is the ontological source of all experience; it is the experiencer. Cosmopsychism brings its own problem, however, that of “decombination”: How does the singular cosmic consciousness give rise to independent islands of consciousness in individual beings (such as ourselves)? Kastrup’s distinctive answer is that decombination comes about through a cosmic equivalent of the dissociation observed in human dissociative identity disorder: “[D]issociation in cosmic consciousness is what leads to the formation of relative subjects. Each relative subject is thus an alter of cosmic consciousness” (p. 142, italics removed).

In relation to the kabbalistic myth, we observe that the solution Kastrup offers expresses the principle of “correspondence above and below”; dissociation in the human is a recapitulation of cosmic dissociation. Moreover, it is worth noting that human dissociation is generally a result of trauma, which poignantly corresponds to a feature of the kabbalistic myth, especially as it was later reformulated by Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century (Scholem, 1941/1961). The absence of balance noted in the Book of Concealment’s opening is understood by Luria as the consequence of a cosmic trauma whereby the creator’s initial stirrings to create catastrophically fail when the vessels intended to hold the creative light break. The unitary Adam Kadmon, the primordial and archetypal human, becomes fragmented.

In highly symbolised form, the kabbalistic myth accommodates both the bottom-up theory whereby resonance builds conscious structures of increasing complexity, and the top-down approach with dissociation giving rise to separated instantiations of consciousness. In fact, the two processes reduce to one since dissociation is the consequence of structures falling out of resonance. As far as resonance is concerned, the myth does away with any need to think in terms of differing scales of consciousness, as when Hunt and Schooler (2019) suggest that an electron or an atom might “enjoy just a tiny amount of consciousness” (p. 6). Similarly, it avoids the problem to which Kastrup (2018) points, of micro-elements instantiating phenomenality. Phenomenality pervades all, it is the cosmic dimension of consciousness, and does not come in “smaller” or “larger” packages. The dimensions of consciousness to which resonance is the appropriate mechanism are accessibility, which amounts to self-reference, and intentionality; it is these that vary in scale in hierarchical fashion. Resonance engenders constellations of being that bring the capacity to integrate top-down phenomenality with bottom-up intentionality, and thereby articulate that there is both a subject of experience and meaning in arrays of neural activity.

A theory of consciousness which can arise from these considerations, stripped of the fanciful imagery of divine faces, gives space to a mystery that cannot be captured in a materialist frame, namely the source of phenomenality. The core of a contemporary non-materialist theory of consciousness asserts that phenomenality, the capacity for experience, is engendered by the events that brought our universe into being. Those events also eventuated in matter, but matter is not the source of phenomenality.

Matter is necessary for patterns of resonance to arise, which underpin the other dimensions of consciousness. Whilst intentionality and self-reference are in this sense dependent on material processes, they transcend materialism to the extent that resonance and the reflexive pattern expressed in the kabbalistic myth are not limited to concrete material forms. As Young (1976) argued, the universe is a reflexive process, and, drawing on the ideas discussed in this chapter, each fractal instance of the process carries information of the whole. The kabbalistic myth is a formulation of the pattern in theistic terms. Whilst theism may be incompatible with scientific perspectives on consciousness, there remains a mystery at the core of being, which unfolds through the Big Bang and initiates the reflexive arc.

Whether or not the epistemological paradigm that is growing from the ashes of reductionist hegemony will accommodate this non-materialist perspective on dimensions of consciousness is a question yet to be answered. But it does seem to me that a culture that cannot live with unknowability at its core is one that is foreclosed to the richness that consciousness brings.


1 | Reviewed by: Harris L. Friedman, PhD, Visiting Scholar, History of Science, Harvard University. Professor (retd), Counselling Psychology, University of Florida.

* Corresponding Author: les.lancaster@aleftrust.org

2 | The Zohar is a classic of spiritual literature which first circulated in thirteenth-century Spain. It is largely a mystical Midrash (exegetical exposition) on the Hebrew Bible, but also includes more esoteric material such as the contents of the Book of Concealment. There has been considerable speculation as to its authorship. In this chapter I refer to its authors in the plural since the Zohar is most likely a repository of oral traditions with a considerable history prior to the date on which it was committed to writing.

3 | The faces are referred to by a variety of names in the Zohar. As ontologically sequential emanations of the infinite divine essence, we can refer to them as “upper” and “lower”, the names I use throughout this chapter. The upper face is called the holy Ancient One, the Ancient of Days, and is understood to be alluded to in the Hebrew Bible simply by the Hebrew for Nothingness; it is also called the Long Face, where the term “long” alludes to “long-suffering” or “compassionate”. The lower face is depicted in the Hebrew Bible by the tetragrammaton (YHVH), and is named the Short Face, referring especially to its “short-temperedness”, being quick to flare to anger at human shortcomings.

4| The term Torah applies directly to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. More generally, and in the sense used here, it covers the entire canon of the Hebrew Bible.

5| The Hebrew for the proverbial “rib” through which Eve was created, as depicted in Genesis 2:2, also has the meaning of “side”. In this sense, in creating Eve, God took one side from the original androgenous being.

6 | The terms “lower” and “higher” in this context are not intended to denote spatial arrangements. “Lower” means less complex processing involving lower levels of inter-sensory integration. “Higher” regions are responsible for the cross-sensory integration that is required for categorical meaning.

7 | Sing. sefirah, pl. sefirot. The ten sefirot are the emanations of God, and their array forms the central symbol of the Kabbalah, often referred to as the Tree of Life (Lancaster, 2005). They may simply be thought of as the means, or channels through which the unknowable, and utterly transcendent essence of God successively manifests into immanent and structured forms. For our purposes it is important to note that the sefirot operate in both the world and the psyche. The conception of archetypes that Jung and Pauli arrived at through their grasp of quantum physics and the psyche may be the best contemporary model for understanding the kabbalistic notion of the sefirot. For Jung and Pauli, the archetype gives rise to both worldly and psychological events (Gieser, 2005; Meier, 2001).

8 | The divine faces are distinctively male (their beards take on major symbolic meaning, for example). Hence the parallel is between divine faces and the male psyche. As discussed in the next section, the kabbalistic myth is in an evolving phase through which it must accommodate the shifts in the collective psyche that redress the feminine-masculine balance.

9 | YHVH depicts the Hebrew consonants in the ineffable divine name. It is incapable of translation, being more a glyph than a word or name. The King James Bible uses “Lord” for this name.

10 | The pausal sign is a line between words in the rabbinically-sanctioned systematization of the Torah and other scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Masoretic text. The sacred scroll of the Torah consists only of consonants and ornaments known as crowns. Vowels and cantillation marks were introduced into the Masoretic text, completed in the tenth century CE. The pausal sign is one of the additions included in the Masoretic text.

11 | Numbers are generally employed by the Zohar authors as hyperbolic symbols. The lower face is constellated by seven “lower” sefirot—hence the “seven eyes of supervision”. Each of these sefirot in turn comprise, as it were, a holographic universe of further sefirot, an idea symbolised by the inclusion of a factor of a “hundred thousand”, indicating multiplicity.

12 | Assagioli drew on a range of spiritual sources to support his model of the psyche. He studied theosophy, and his model owed much to Vedantic philosophy, which posits Brahman as the universal Self, with the individual “I” an illusion. His library also included kabbalistic works. Deikman similarly was influenced by Vedanta. The critical point is not whether we can demonstrate correspondences across psychological and mystical sources, for given these psychologists’ interests, mystical sources may have influenced their psychologies. The critical point, it seems to me, is that the mystical perspectives on distinct constellations of self were shown by Jung, Assagioli and others to be prescriptively effective in therapeutic terms.


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