by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle
The world appears broken. Our experience of our society is illness. Injustice reigns, and the cosmic order is in disarray. We tell ourselves, as practitioners, what we have been telling ourselves for years—these are the last vestiges of the Age of Pisces. We are ushering in a new world. And perhaps we are right. But it doesn’t feel like that, and after working personally and in community and seeing no end in sight, no light of Aquarius at the end of the tunnel, it is easy to succumb to despair. It is in these moments that we need to use our tools the most, engage our magick, and look to our maps and mandalas to reorient ourselves amid the chaos.
One of my primary tools for understanding consciousness is the Tree of Life. As a practitioner, I have found the Qabalistic Tree of Life to be a powerful map for me. At first I was a reluctant user of it. I disliked the geometry, the memorization, the pattern. I wanted something more symmetrical. I wanted something more organic. Then, due to great mentorship, I stopped whining about what I wanted it to be and just studied it as it was presented. Studying something didn’t mean I had to be married to it, and with that freedom to choose at the forefront of my studies, I found myself married to it. I now have difficulty imagining my interface with magick at least not referencing it obliquely.
What helps me in the Tree of Life is a review of the little-used set of correspondences. When everyone else is most focused on god names, planets, and letters, I found the concepts of the vision, virtue, vice, obligation, and illusion most helpful. Each level on the Tree, each sphere or emanation of the divine known as a sephira, has five points of consciousness that can help you figure out where you are on your own personal inner Tree of Life. With it, you can have a map of obvious ways to move onward and can easily see where such choices will lead you. The symbols can also help you devise rituals and meditation, but when you’re stuck, their main benefit is providing a focus and showing you some clear options. While there are additional options not on the map, when you are lost, it is helpful to find the obvious roads that are sometimes not-so-obvious during times of confusion.
Some confuse their inner personal Tree of Life with the cosmic tree. They can confuse the daily challenges of life with cosmic initiation and enlightenment. The progression is not linear, and what seems like enlightenment today can seem quite juvenile tomorrow. We must realize that there is a tree within a tree within a tree, and it’s all relative. Comparing yourself to anyone else doesn’t matter, as they are not on your tree, and there is no way to truly know if your tree is “higher” or “lower” than anyone else’s. There is no way to prove you are better or worse, so stop trying. Instead, use the tree like a lens to understand yourself and those you are having difficulty with, including the world in general.
I feel despair when I look at the world and see so much selfishness and unrepentant greed. I also see so much dishonesty, and the two form the roots of destruction. While there can be more detailed critique, I feel society (at least American society, but also society in a larger sense) is challenged by unregulated greed and dishonesty.
It’s awful to witness, but witness we must, for that is the first function of consciousness, before any action. The act of witnessing with consciousness can change the outcome, a fundamental teaching of alchemy and magick, though I’m a big believer in following up everything with real-world action to make change. And when we witness, as trite as it sounds, I think we are at a threshold of personal and societal initiation. Quite simply, we must choose to do the work on both of those levels.
In the Tree of Life, the lower four spheres of the tree are divided from the upper by a veil, acting as a magickal buffer between those who have achieved a level of spiritual adepthood and those who are cycling though human stuff. Many seekers have peak experiences that touch the first sphere of adepthood, Tiphereth, but not everyone anchors themselves there. And even when you do, you still cycle through all the human challenges “below,” but you have a new perspective on it all, and you root your identity there instead.
The two spheres just below this new sense of self are called Netzach and Hod, or Victory and Splendor. They are fancy names for the consciousness of Venus and Mercury respectively, planets close to the Sun, which is the “planet” of Tiphereth, meaning Beauty or Harmony.
The vice of Hod, Mercury, is dishonesty and falsehood, while the vice of Netzach is selfishness. There we have the corruption before us, so close to harmony, but inverted from their true purpose. One who embodies the virtue of Hod embodies truthfulness. Truthfulness is found through dedicated learning, which means studying not just of facts, but also the “why” behind them. With that learning, the illusion that everything is in order is released. The spiritual vision of Hod is the Vision of Splendor. It’s an experience of understanding the splendor of things, their perfect order, just as they are, which is often imperfect and unordered. In my struggles with dishonesty in our society, I must also look at myself and realize I cannot force my sense of order upon it. I must witness the unfolding and act from a place of truth, realizing the differences between objective truth, my truth, and another’s truth.
The vice of Netzach, Venus, is selfishness, but also traditionally included in it is “impurity” and “unchastity.” Though these conjure images of Puritanical sexuality, that isn’t the deeper meaning here, which has little to do with pleasure and more to do with the programming we carry. It is the impurity of shame, when we feel we are not worthy, and undoing this programming requires the ability to determine whether something is truly harmful or whether we’ve been told so to control us. The combined illusion of selfish greed and impurity generates projections. Rather than own our actions, we project them onto others. Don’t we see that daily? The liar tells us everyone else is lying. The cheater accuses others of cheating. The violent seek to regulate the other side from being violent, even when they are not. There are common “tells,” behaviors or phrases that indicate when such a projected lie is coming. Therefore, the projection and falsehood, the vices of Venus and Mercury, go hand-in-hand. Projection allows us to believe the falsehood as truth, as our truth, even when it is really false. It’s how people can live with the lie and truly believe in their own virtue.
Netzach’s obligation is responsibility. We must be responsible for our own thoughts, words, and deeds. We must be aware and correct our projections. When climbing the Tree, we usually reach Hod first, followed by Netzach, so we must take responsibility for the previous spheres, including the falsehood of Hod and other vices such as idleness and inertia. When we do, we learn the virtue of unselfishness and can find the Vision of Beauty Triumphant. I had a teacher who described this vision as “love wins.” We often talk about love, the power of love, all we need is love, love is everything, but it is only love triumphant when we learn to find love through responsibility and truthfulness, through trust in the greater process, and a disciplined effort to our conscious practice, be it meditation, magick, and/or the reformation of our current society through just action and engagement.
Sentimental and soporific love never wins. It just makes us feel good for a moment. Beauty triumphant is seeing the beauty in every moment and loving the beauty in every moment. After that, we can follow the serpent’s path, the lightning strike to the beauty and harmony of a new level of consciousness. The path between Venus and the Sun is represented by the Death card in Tarot. We must die to the old self, an initiatory process, to be reborn. We must let go of the part of us that still uses greed, dishonesty, mistrust, and laziness as our baseline operating system. Likewise, if we follow the opposite route via Hod, we find ourselves on the path of the Devil card. We will be confronted by the gatekeeper, the guardian of the threshold, and challenged to release our imposed and accepting bindings to become free. When we take the middle path, we are walking the path of Temperance, of not only balance, but union and integration between the two.
Collectively as a society, in our politics, government, and social lives, we are all facing Death, the Devil, and Temperance, being challenged to go deeper, climb higher, and reach a new level of consciousness. It will happen in large and small ways, personally and professionally. Recently I experienced a surprising conflict with now-former students. Perplexed by their behavior, in many ways the issues mirrored the larger conflict of our nation and world regarding clear communication, community, and privilege. It was only after reviewing ten years of correspondence leading to the crisis that I could see the growing pattern. The key word was responsibility, or lack thereof. The behaviors were projections believed to be the truth, but it was obvious to a larger group less attached to the situation that they were projections. With that, I understood how the students’ actions could have come so far, yet still be inappropriate in that moment. They were at the challenge of Netzach, the challenge of the veil where one must transition their identity and let go. Other changes in their lives were certainly challenging identity, and this intensified in the magickal community. While it didn’t solve the problem, as their choices left nothing to solve, understanding the mechanism behind the scenario that led us to such a situation did help me gain greater comfort. While I was tempted to write a letter explaining it, a few wise mentors all emphasized that if they are not asking for communication, they were not in a place to hear it, and if anything should occur, they must be the ones to open that door. In illusion, it is easy to frame it however you’d like it to make yourself the hero. And I must be aware of that myself, as I obviously have my own biases in such situations.
When I apply this teaching to the world, I likewise gain a measure of understanding and sympathy, even though it doesn’t solve the world’s problems. Seeking order, which is an illusion we impose upon our reality the way we wish it to be, creates falsehood. Those embodying the virtue of Hod can only continue to speak truth to power and encourage others to do the same. Those justifying selfishness will have difficulty seeing it as selfishness, and will therefore project onto others to avoid responsibility, distracting themselves and (they think) distracting others. Those holding the virtue of Netzach can only take responsibility for what is within their power to change, embodying responsible love, beauty triumphant, in all that they do. We must be vigilant to apply truth and responsibility to all aspects of our lives—personally, professionally, and in the greater society—and not just call out others without taking our own inventory.
Let us all work together in aiding the natural triumph of beauty, in all things, as we walk the paths of death, freedom, and balance together, to start a new paradigm of harmony in the world.